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Seasonal Somersault: 6 Tips For A Successful Fall & Winter Garden

"I love my fall garden. I'm way too busy in the spring to get much planted. But I can plant in the summer after the busy season is over and have an amazing garden in the fall." -Lindsay Schramm, North End Organic Nursery
"If you're a farmer, you need to choose: am I a summer farmer or a winter farmer?" -Fred Brossy, Ernie's Organics
"Your summer garden feeds you for 3 months. Your fall garden can feed you for 6-8 months." -Don Tipping, Siskiyou Seeds
Welcome to a big ole pot of inspiration to rethink what you know about gardening! The vast majority of us have been taught that you prepare your garden in spring and rush to get everything you're going to grow for the year into the ground before the summer heats up. But what if that wasn't the only (or the best) way to grow some crops?
This is a blog for those of you who:
  • Were busy (or just slacking) this spring and you didn't actually get your garden planted, OR
  • You were SUPER on it and you grew a huge amount of early spring crops that are done now and you have big, open patches in your garden, OR
  • You want to spread out your garden tasks, so you don't feel so rushed in the spring, OR
  • You want to experiment with growing certain crops in the seasons they're most likely to thrive, rather than sticking everything in the ground at the same time each spring. 

No matter which category you "fall" into (heh heh), let's take the journey toward greater fall gardening success with these 5 savvy tips:

1. Fall gardening begins in the summer. 

Just like you don't plant a tomato in July, just when you'd like to be eating it, you need to sow seeds at the correct time to be able to harvest them in the fall. For example, long-season Brassicas like Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Cabbage are sown in late May in order for them to go through their process of growth and be ready to make the big ole heads we love to eat as the days start to cool down in the fall. Know the best time to sow various crops and create a schedule for yourself to get them in the ground for maximum success.

And remember to add about 30% to the "days to maturity" of crops you're sowing after the summer solstice, as the shortening days can delay maturity. In general, you'll want to start crops earlier than you might think, to get a successful fall and winter crop. 

This handy-dandy chart will help!

2. Some crops actually grow better as fall crops than as spring crops.

If you've tried growing Broccoli as a spring crop, you know that most of those danged heads end up going to flower well before they've gotten big and voluptuous enough to rival the heads in the grocery store. That's because broccoli is always taking temperature cues from the environment to let it know when it's time to move into the next phase of its growth cycle. As temperatures fluctuate wildly in the spring, going from very hot days to very cold nights, it can signal the plant that it is time to think about budding and flowering, even if it's still relatively small. But if they are sown in late May and transplanted out into the garden in June or July, they'll just happily grow bigger in the heat for the rest of the summer, and then start to bud as the temperatures cool off. And since the temperatures aren't quite so crazy in the fall, those buds will likely keep on a-growing for longer before trying to flower, and you'll get those satisfyingly huge heads! 

Bulbing crops like fennel act similarly, so seeding them in mid-summer can actually get you bigger bulbs of fennel than when you seed them in the spring. And the greens?! Almost all the common greens, from lettuces to mustards, kale, frisee, cress, and others, are much happier when grown in cooler temperatures. In the Intermountain West, our spring temps can shoot up overnight and send otherwise content greens into early bolting. But if you sow them in late summer, they'll grow happily as the temperatures cool, and without getting as bitter as they can get in that summer heat! 

3. Crops grown as fall crops often store better than spring-sown crops.

If like us you love to have your own garden-grown beets and carrots to eat all winter, you'll find that sowing seeds for these crops in the summer will actually grow carrots and beets that are the perfect size for storage. When you hold spring-sown carrots and beets in the garden until fall, they often grow extremely large, and even split, which makes them more susceptible to rotting in storage. But sowing them mid-summer allows them to grow to the perfect size to store well all winter. 

*Storage tip: I have found the best way for me to store a lot of carrots and beets all winter is to put them in plastic grocery bags (not sealed) and then pack those bags into a cooler. I rest the lid of the cooler on itself, but don't press it all the way down to create a tight seal. And I leave that cooler in my unheated garage. The cooler protects them from freezing, and in combination with the unsealed plastic bags seems to be the perfect humidity and temperature to remain crisp all winter!  

In milder areas (like zone 5 and above), some folks have success overwintering their carrots in the ground and mulching with a foot or more of fall leaves. Parsnips are especially cold-hardy. You just have to wait for a warm, sunny day when the ground is thawed enough to dig them up.  

4. With a little protection, fall greens can keep you in fiber & vitamins into the winter.

It is impossible to describe the satisfaction of having fresh greens in the middle of the starch-filled slog of winter. While areas of the Intermountain West are wildly diverse in the severity of their winters, greens sown for a fall garden often provide food far longer than greens sown in spring. A bit of protection, like a low hoophouse or cold frame, can keep them warm, and even the snow provides an insulating blanket for them. A few things to keep in mind in this scenario:

  • If you are using a cold frame or hoophouse, the soil will dry out, so you will want to add water from a watering can or other frost-free source as needed. 
  • It is often the lack of light rather than merely the cold temperatures, that keep greens from growing during the darkest part of the winter. If you sow early and have lots of large leaves by Thanksgiving, you can pick off of those for December and January, and the plants will start growing again in February as the days start to lengthen again. 
  • If possible, pick leaves when they aren't frozen. This is less important for hardy greens like kale and collards than for more tender greens like lettuce, which will just turn to mush as it thaws if you pick it frozen. 
  • Snow makes an excellent insulating blanket! Crops like kale and collard greens can often overwinter more successfully in areas with reliable snow cover. 

Some of our favorite winter-hardy greens are: spinach, chervil, kale, collards, mache, mizspoona, and cilantro.

5. Seeding crops in late fall is a great way to jump-start the next season.

A friend who is an immigrant from Poland told me excitedly the last time I saw her that she's finally figured out gardening in Idaho: the secret is to sow her seeds in the fall and they will come up in the spring when they are ready. I agree with her that I often have very early spring crops of many different plants that have sprouted from seeds that fell on the ground the year before. Now I routinely sow seeds for mustard greens, spinach, chervil, bee friend, and other favorite crops in October, and they'll sit over winter and come up as early as they possibly can in the spring well before I'm ready to actively be working in my garden again! 

6. Don't forget the flowers! 

So many of our Intermountain West native flowers need the cold and the cycles of freeze-thaw that occur in winter and early spring to signal their seeds that it is time to break dormancy and sprout. The complexity of this communication between air, soil, temperature, water, and seed is still poorly understood by humans for many native species, so the best way to set those seeds up for success is to simply sow them outside in the late fall, and let them do what they know how to do so well! They will sprout when they sense the time is right. Take these tips from the flowers and set yourself up for success! 

BONUS: 

Gardening for Winter Eating: a brief overview of our favorite storage crops and when we sow them

Beets: Sow in mid-summer. Harvest in September.

Carrots: Sow in mid-summer. Harvest in September.

Garlic: Plant in Sept/Oct. Harvest in July.

Kale/Collards: Sow anytime. Harvest anytime, all throughout winter. 

Other hardy greens: Sow in August. Harvest into the fall and winter. 

Onions: Sow in early February, transplant out mid-April. Harvest in August.

Potatoes: Plant in late March. Harvest in August.

Sweet potatoes: Plant slips in early June. Harvest just before first frost in fall.

Winter Squash: Sow in late May, after last frost. Harvest just before the first frost in fall.