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Fall Planting & Other Succession Strategies

Q. My interest in growing has been spurred by a recent trip to Israel where I studied Permaculture and organic gardening. I just arrived home and would like to plant a garden of some sort, but have no idea what's still possible to grow this late in the season (either for harvest this season or next). Any advice would be really helpful. Thanks,

    ---Mark in Blue Bell, PA

Hi Mike! I finally found some cheap wood to make a raised bed for my vegetable garden. Unfortunately, it is now pretty late in the season. I could wait until next spring, but I'm excited and want to plant something! Am I just too late? Or is there anything I can still grow if I plant right away? I was thinking pumpkins or winter squash.

    ---Larry in Santa Rosa CA

A. Don't be fooled by the term "winter squash". Those groovy edibles got their common name because the harvested fruits stay edible all winter, not because they can grow in cold weather, which they actually despise. Same for pumpkins, which are themselves a form of winter squash. As am I.

Anyway, except for the extreme North, we can all still sow 'cut and come again' salad greens from seed and harvest a few runs before cold weather shuts us down. A spun polyester row cover will extend the season nicely, maybe even keeping the young greens alive until Spring, when they'll grow rapidly. Greens are a sure thing for quite a few runs up in the wine country where Larry resides (I love Santa Rosa!), and row covers would allow him (and other gardeners in similarly moderate climes) to harvest straight through most winters.

It's a little late in the North to put in cool-weather plants like broccoli, but go for it down South and out West, where you might be able to harvest a little head, let the plant stand over winter and get lots of tasty side-shoots in the Spring.

And of course, Fall is when your garlic crop should go in the ground. Its also time to plant pansies; you'll harvest lots of the edible and highly nutritious cold-weather-loving flowers this fall, the plants will survive winter in all but the most Northern realms, and then really pump out tasty posies next Spring.

And carrots are a crop that actually tastes better after a few light frosts! The timing is getting dicey in the North, but go ahead and sow the seed in warmer areas. Mulch the beds with straw or shredded leaves after all the greens are up and you should be able to harvest continually throughout the winter by pushing the mulch aside and pulling Bugs Bunny's favorite food as needed!

Q. I grew up helping my grandfather care for a substantial garden. He had lots of space to devote to each crop, and didn't have to think about growing things in the same spot until the following year. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury; just three raised beds. I'm planning on putting in three more next year, but space will still be at a premium. Most seed packets tell when I can begin harvesting my crop, but not when they're done. Obviously, crops like lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower are harvested at their maturity date, but other things, like okra, peppers, zucchini, etc. seem to be unpredictable as to when they've burned out. Can you tell me when such things are finished? Thanks,

    --Jay in Helmetta, NJ

A. Well, thank you Jay! I'm going to use your question as a jumping off point for a short course on succession planting; aka, getting the most eating out of a small space.

Now, the only crops I can think of that ever truly "finish" on their own are potatoes (which don't grow any bigger after the vines die); sweet corn (which must be harvested promptly and then doesn't produce any new ears); onions (which are done when the tops keel over); and garlic, which is planted in the Fall and harvested in late June or early July.

Lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower are not necessarily as dead end as you believe. Yes, head lettuce IS typically cut when the head is big and full and hot weather is approaching. But virtually all lettuces can instead be harvested regularly with scissors ("cut and come again" style) and produce for very long periods of time. And while the big main heads of broccoli must be harvested before the worst of summer hits, any plants left in the ground will go on to produce "side shoots" when the weather cools down. You often get more to eat from these numerous smaller heads than from that first big one!

Here's a sample succession scheme to help you get the most out of those raised beds.

Early Spring: Lettuce and spinach (freshly planted, overwintered, or both), radishes, peas, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, potatoes (surprisingly cold hardy!), carrots and beets.

Late Spring/Early Summer: Lose the greens; compost the pea vines (which can't take summer's heat) harvest the last of the radishes, Chinese cabbage and carrots. Cut the main heads from the broccoli and let the plants stand. Harvest the garlic you planted the previous Fall. Clean out the dying pansies from the previous fall (same as peas; they can't take the heat). In the places you've cleared, plant the Boys of Summer: Cukes, zukes, melons, tamatas, peppers, eggplant, okra, beans, etc. Regular picking will keep most of these crops producing nicely until frost finishes them off.

Mid-summer: Cull some of the more obvious underachievers and plant carrots, cauliflower and cabbage for fall harvest in their place.

Late summer/Early Fall: Harvest the potatoes. Plant garlic, pansies, lots of greens for continuous cutting, and more carrots. If you're feeling lucky, try a fall crop of peas.

Of course, that's just a sample; your particulars will depend on your clime and, of course, what you like to eat. Just remember that no spot should ever go empty; it's always a good time to have something in the ground.

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