Mid-August is the time in my vegetable garden when both my plants and I are feeling a little tired. The tomatoes, although still producing, have lost some of their vigor to heat and fungal disease. The sweet corn and cucumbers have produced all they are going to produce. The squash was sacrificed long ago to squash bugs and squash vine borers.
There is still plenty of time to garden this year, though, and a few days of lower temperatures remind me that fall is on the way. I already have a space set aside for radishes, lettuce and spinach. I also hope to plant kale and carrots to last into the winter months.
To prepare for planting, I plan to work the soil only lightly. Tilling at this time of year will only cause more moisture loss from already dry soils. I am also holding off on fertilizer since many fall crops have low nutrient requirements. Fertilizer can be applied later if plants need it. I just want to get rid of what remains of the weeds and loosen the soil surface enough to plant easily.
Starting seeds in August is sometimes difficult, so I also plan to plant the seeds just a tiny bit deeper than I would in the spring. I will water heavily before and after planting. Soaker hoses work best to allow water to soak deeply into the soil. Seedlings should also be watered until their root systems develop. Once plants reach a few inches tall, wait until they wilt before applying water again. Deep and infrequent watering builds drought tolerance and encourages deeper root growth.
Leafy greens can be harvested as soon as they are large enough to eat. Although some people prefer to pull the plants and trim the roots, I simply cut the leaves and leave the roots in the ground. This method allows for several cuttings of leaf lettuce and spinach in a season. Some gardeners report a different flavor on later cuttings than on the first, but it is a matter of personal preference.
Spinach, like kale and carrots, can withstand some frosts. All of these vegetables will last longer if mulch is placed around the plants. Carrots can be left in the ground until the soil starts to freeze.
What else can be grown in fall? Most of the cool season crops that are grown in the spring will also grow in the fall. Two exceptions are peas and potatoes. Peas prefer cooler soils for germination. Snow peas grow better in the fall than other varieties but still generally with limited success. Potatoes grow well in the fall, but seed sources are a challenge. Few garden centers or supply dealers carry seed potatoes in mid-summer. If you have sprouted potatoes in the pantry, they are probably your best bet for a fall crop.
Turnips often grow better in the fall than in the spring and can be left in the ground like carrots. Beets will also withstand light frost.
First frost usually occurs in mid- to late-October. Tender (warm-season) plants can be covered with baskets, blankets, or buckets for the first frost or two to extend their season. Row covers may be used with hoops (to keep the cover from contacting the plants) to extend the growing season even longer.
Just the thought of a fall garden is making me hungry for salad.
Side note: There are still spaces available in the Fall 2011 Extension Master Gardener Training class. Contact us for more information! Classes start Aug. 23.