SECOND SEASON FOR VEGGIES
If you missed out on setting up a vegetable garden this past spring or if you’ve had such a good time with the one you’ve been growing, you’re in luck. The time is ripe –pun intended – to get going for what’s called a “Second Season.”
ADVANTAGES OF A FALL SEASON
Instead of gardening in a season that advances from cool to hot, you’ll be planning for a season “in reverse” as the summer wanes. The growth of your plants will be slower and as a result, your harvests will take longer to fully mature. The silver lining is that these later season crops will be much less likely to bolt (go to flower and seed) and crops like Swiss chard won’t get bitter as they do when the temperatures rise.
Many crops can withstand and even flourish in colder temperatures. Salad greens like lettuces, spinach, and arugula can be grown and harvested well into November in some states with a little protection. Several vegetables actually need the colder temperatures to add to their flavor and sweetness like carrots and broccoli. Root crops like beets, turnips and carrots work well as fall crops since they essentially store in the ground as the weather cools.
Planting in late summer is actually more successful and less work for many gardeners: you have fewer weeds, less insects, diseases wane, and the warm soil aids fast seed germination.
WHERE TO START
The first thing you need to do is get a handle on your average first frost date. You can get that info from your local garden center or by internet search. A frost date is the average date of the first or last light freeze that occurs in spring or fall. It should be used as a guide since microclimates (local weather and topography) can impact the dates. And since it is a forecast, remember that the info may be slightly off as weather is out of our control. A light freeze (29 to 32F) kills tender plants. A moderate freeze (25 to 28F) destroys most seasonal plants. A severe freeze of 24F and below is the final blow. It will take down most other plants that are not hardy in your zone. Frost dates are calculated based on data from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.
If you decide to start your plants from seed, you simply count backwards from that date the number of days each plant needs to reach maturity (which is located on the seed packet and any number of internet sites). Because plant growth will slow as temperatures fall, add 10 days to that time to maturity number, and you’re ready to decide exactly when to plant. To better space your harvests so you’re not inundated with the same crop all at once, consider sowing seeds twice a week through mid-September or until you run out of time. For seeds, you can use whatever you have left over from your spring planting as long as you kept them in a cool, dark place to maintain viability. Just watch that “days to maturity” time frame.
With the exception of lettuces, seed starting is easier at this time of year. You simply sow the seeds where you want the plants to grow. Lettuce seed, however, won’t germinate at temperatures warmer than 80 degrees so you may need to start those seeds in a cool garage or basement and hold them there until the seedlings are strong and ready to be planted out.
Think about shade for tender seedlings. You can make a screen by securing some burlap to wooden stakes or bamboo poles and installing it on the southwest side of your fall garden. I use an old fireplace screen and some nursery flat trays to create shade.
In September you can remove your screens when the days are much shorter as the plants will need the warmth of that afternoon sun.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WATERING
The most challenging task you will have starting plants from seed is keeping the seeds and seedlings moist at all times without drowning them. Soaker hoses on a timer or regular misting (an option on many watering wands) are two ways to do that. Seeds and newly started plants can dry out very quickly and once that happens, the plant can be stressed beyond recovery.
Of course, you can also buy plants that are already started, just as you did for your spring garden. You’ll need to call ahead to your local garden center to learn if they will be stocking vegetable starts, especially if you’re looking for something in particular.
SITING YOUR FALL VEGGIE GARDEN
Consider where you will grow these later vegetables. For this late planting, you might want to take advantage of season-extending microclimates like a south- or southwest-facing wall that will retain the heat of a sunny fall day. It will return the heat back to the plants at its base at night, keeping them toasty until the next sunrise. You’ll need at least 6-8 hours of sun, proximity to water, protection from wind, and good drainage. If it’s a new planting area, test or have the soil tested to determine what you need to add to bring it up to an acceptable level. Don’t hesitate to use beds/containers that have held earlier season crops that should be on their way out by now. In that case, recharge the soil by adding Coast of Maine compost or Stonington Blend Organic Plant Food.
MANAGING UNPREDICTABLE WEATHER
As long as we’re talking about season extenders, think about cold frames. It can be as simple as a wood crate with an old storm window for a cover. You can also create a tunnel-like structure to cover your raised and earth beds by using PVC bent into hoops over the beds.
The PVC becomes the support for plastic or fleece that you use to cover the beds when necessary. These tools will be useful not just for this second season, but also for starting your garden sooner next spring.
Expect to be surprised by an earlier than normal cold night. Those one or two-night cold snaps are usually followed by consistently above freezing temperatures for another few weeks. If you can just get past those short term temperature drops, you can harvest produce well into November with a little protection. Be ready with a fleece row cover or some kind of temporary shelter should the nighttime temperatures be forecasted to drop below 33 degrees. Don’t be so quick to recycle that large cardboard shipping box: when it’s inverted, it will go a long way to keeping your plants warm through a cold night.
You will learn a great deal by keeping notes of what you did for this fall garden. Record things like how you prepped your soil, what you planted where, and how each planting fared. Did you seed your lettuces too early to yield successful starter plants? How well did your irrigation or shading work under these conditions? When did you actually get your first frost and freeze? How late were you able to harvest which vegetables and herbs? And most importantly, note where you planted what so next year, you will have no doubt where to plant what as you rotate your crops yet again.
GROW ENOUGH TO DONATE
Many of us raise more produce than we can consume and this year may be your opportunity to plant extra food crops to make a donation to your local food bank. We are seeing an unprecedented need to supply those food banks and you can be part of a solution to this problem. Your local town hall can help you find the food bank closest to you.
Fall vegetable gardens are one of the advantages of living in a true four season climate. I guarantee you’ll get much more out of this than you can imagine.
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide