Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Fresh start for fall

My spring vegetable crop went all awry, because a combination of freakishly warm weather and general disorganization threw my timing off. I got the herbs and tomatoes set out, but I failed to get my usual two or three crops of salads or radishes before the seriously hot weather set in.

But now – even as I still swelter – I’m getting ready for my second chance. Many of the same plants that do well in cool springs also do well in the cool of autumn. So I’m preparing to resow seeds of lettuce, mesclun, radishes and spinach in the containers of my back-porch vegetable garden.

If you have a vegetable garden in the ground, August can be a busy time. A second crop in fall maximizes the yield from your garden real estate, and there are plenty of vegetables that will produce well in autumn as temperatures fall.

It’s not exactly the same as spring, though. For one thing, days are growing shorter in fall, so the garden gets less sunlight every day as we move toward the first frost.

For another, it’s hard for many cool-season plants to get started outdoors in withering summer heat. Many serious vegetable gardeners start seeds of crops such as broccoli that need a lot of time in a greenhouse or indoors using the same light setup they used to start tomato seed in March. Even summer squash can eke out a fall crop with that indoor start.

But many fall crops can be sowed directly in the garden toward the end of August when, we hope, it will start to cool down a bit. All kinds of greens do well when direct-sowed, as do many root vegetables such as beets, radishes and carrots.

Lettuce is very easy, even in pots, and if you plan to eat it young as baby greens, like I do, it’s perfectly possible to get a crop in a month or six weeks.

Autumn weather is always iffy. And this year all weather is extra iffy. To give yourself the best shot, find out what your area’s average first frost date is, add a week’s buffer and count back to see when you have time for. Then check seed packets to see various crops’ days to maturity from direct-sowing.

To hedge your bets, sow two or three patches a week apart, so if frost comes extra early you’ll still get a crop and if it’s late you might get an extra bounty.

Some greens, such as spinach, kale, collards and cabbage, as well as brussels sprouts, can tolerate a light frost. I know people who grow spinach almost all through Chicago winters with the protection of floating row covers.

Personally, I’m less ambitious. I won’t count on spinach and radishes for Thanksgiving (although some years I get lucky).

I stagger my “salad bowls” of lettuce and mesclun so I can keep them in heavy rotation until frost. I cut individual leaves with scissors and the plants will keep putting on new foliage for a while. I’m looking forward to plenty of autumn salads – perhaps with walnuts and the new crop of crisp, tart Jonathan apples – to make up for what I missed in spring.