Autumn’s Secret Garden

Savvy gardeners enjoy some of the sweetest harvests of the year when the rest of us are already raiding our freezers or resorting to supermarket vegetables.

Peas

Plant peas in late July to early August for a delectable fall harvest.
Plant cold-tolerant fall vegetable crops in midsummer for late-season harvests.

For lots of folks, the Secret Garden isn’t a physical place; it’s a time of year. These savvy gardeners enjoy some of the sweetest harvests of the year when the rest of us are already raiding our freezers or resorting to supermarket vegetables.

If you think of sweet peas, lettuce, beet greens, and spinach as strictly spring crops, you’re not alone. Most of us rush to plant our spring vegetable gardens and then never plant another seed until the following year. As each vegetable matures and gets harvested, we pull it up and consider it “done” for the year.

That’s why I was so surprised when Kathy LaLiberte told me she would be planting peas this weekend. I double checked the calendar to make sure it was really late July and asked, “Isn’t it a little late and a bit too hot to be planting peas?”

She said, “A friend told me she plants peas after she harvests her garlic at the end of July. Peas are my very favorite crop, so I tried it last year and had a great fall harvest.” For this second crop, she plants a low-growing variety of edible pod peas that don’t require a trellis, such as Sugar Ann.

I’ve been planting late broccoli for years because I discovered that there are far fewer pest problems in the fall. The broccoli that I pick in October rarely has cabbage worms and the cooler weather seems to improve the flavor, too. My early season broccoli transplants go into the garden a few weeks before the last frost date. Then I plant more broccoli from seed directly in the garden, about the time I set out frost-tender tomatoes and pepper.

Other vegetables that you can—and should!—replant during the summer include cucumbers, beets, radishes, lettuce and other greens, as well as celery and beans. Planting some new seeds every two to four weeks means you’ll always have plants at the peak of their production and flavor. Multiple plantings is also insurance against a total crop failure, which can happen when you’ve “put all your eggs in one basket,” so to speak. (For more on this topic, read Double Your Harvest with a Second Planting)

Eliot Coleman author of The New Organic Grower’s Four-Season Harvest and other books has been a pioneer in succession planting. He and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, have more information on extending the garden harvest season in their books and articles and on their Four Season Farm web site. Eliot’s newest book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, has detailed instructions, based on more than 30 years of market gardening, about staggering crops for maximum production.

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2 Responses to Autumn’s Secret Garden

  1. Marsha says:

    when can I plant broccoli, lettuce for the fall in North Carolina – it is very hot ( 95 today ) I normally sow lettuce directly into the garden but I normally buy broccoli plants ?

  2. Hi Marsha,
    A couple ideas:
    You can probably sow lettuce now (or soon) right in the garden as long as you do it under some shade netting and make sure to keep the soil consistently moist until the young plants get established. The shade netting will help cool the soil (lettuce doesn't like to germinate in hot soil) and will also reduce evaporation. We will be offering shade netting again in January 2010. Until then, hopefully you can find a substitute.

    It's too bad that garden centers don't sell vegetable seedlings in the late summer for fall crops. The only option is to start your own. I find that starting something like broccoli in the garden in late summer is challenging because of the heat and bugs. So I start broccoli, kale and lettuce in the greenhouse or under lights, then transplant into the garden right around now. You might have success with that, too. (And can probably do it a bit later since you don't need to race the snow as we do up here!)
    As pioneers in this “found” season of fall gardening, we have to experiment and fend for ourselves until everyone else catches on!

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