Sunday, September 21, 2008

Planting for a Fall Crop

Guest Blog by Rachel Shaw

Cindy Brown’s article in the current issue of Washington Gardener magazine entitled, “Autumn Edibles”, was a great little nudge – one I could use every year by about mid-July. Many seed packets say something like “plant in mid-to-late summer for a fall crop.” But in mid-summer, I’m still waiting to see how the tomatoes are going to do in my less-than-full-sun garden, wondering if I’ll have another great crop of peppers, and forgetting to water the beans. It’s sweltering, the garden looks a bit raggedy and chewed up, and fall seems a long way off. And then suddenly, it’s after Labor Day, a little late to plant those crops that won’t mature for 90 days or more.

This year I’m doing better, but I’m still not quite on target. I’ve been meaning to start Brussels sprouts for a fall crop. I start most of my vegetables indoors from seed, and I remembered about the Brussels sprouts a few weeks back. I got the seeds started, but then I got busy and let my seedlings languish in their little Jiffy pots, instead of transplanting them into larger pots before planting out. That second step, from sterile mix in a small pot to regular potting soil in a larger pot, always gives seedlings a tremendous boost. Realizing I was running out of time, I transplanted them from the Jiffy pots directly to the garden. Are those little 2-3 inch Brussels sprout plants going to mature in time for a late fall harvest? Not likely.

And what of the turnips and rutabaga I direct-seeded at the end of August? According to Cindy’s Fall Planting Chart in this issue, the turnips have a fighting chance; the rutabaga not so much.

I’m more hopeful about the kale, a vegetable favorite of mine, and one that is supposed to taste even better after frost. I wouldn’t know. The usual scenario is I start my kale in early spring, and it does okay through a good bit of hot weather. By September it’s been chewed by flea beetles and aphids. I’ve plucked the lower leaves time and again, so there are long bare stalks where the biggest leaves used to be. I end up pulling the kale long before winter.

This year the spring kale crop is holding up better than usual, and I’ve started a fall crop as well. Surely I’ll finally get to enjoy the taste of kale sweetened by frost! And if not, there’s always the possibility of homegrown lettuce in January. My husband and I want to see if we can actually grow enough lettuce indoors for salads through the winter. Once we get that challenge figured out, it’s on to the next one. How about growing tomatoes indoors to go with that lettuce? A little internet research suggests it’s actually not that hard. Has anyone tried it, or have recommendations for a tasty dwarf tomato, preferably heirloom?

Rachel Shaw, a Midwest transplant, is learning to appreciate the benefits of the DC area’s long growing season. Her vegetable garden challenges include contending with less than full sun and the remaining roots of a large box-elder felled to make way for the garden. Rachel is a member of Washington Gardener magazine's Reader Panel.

Cabbage 'Dynamo' photo courtesy of All-America Selections.

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