If you've been a diligent gardener this year, chances are the rewards are starting to add up. With a big, juicy garden finally in cruise mode, now might not be the time you want to ponder starting over, but this is exactly what you must do in order to stay ahead of the seasonal curve. Your strong, beautiful plants will start to fade at the end of summer, and when they do you'll want to have reinforcements in place, plants that can tough it out through the fall, and perhaps into winter.
And if your spring garden got off to a slow start, a fall garden can be a shot at redemption. Instead of trying to play catch-up by planting tomatoes in August, let go of the recent failures and look ahead to the opportunities presenting themselves now.
Specifically, you can look forward to the likes of greens, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and peas, depending on your location. Choose seeds for plants that have a chance of surviving past a hard freeze, and have a relatively short number of days until maturity. And as you prepare to plant them, think about how you're going to keep these plants warm when the days get cold.
One strategy is to cover the crops with floating row cover, a lightweight white cloth often called "reme," which functions as a blanket when laid over plants. Or you can build a hoop house around them. Alternatively, stick to crops, such as carrots or kale, that grow sweeter after a frost.
Peruse your garden and choose an appropriate place, or places, for your fall planting, taking into consideration where the sun's path will be as it starts hanging out in the southern end of the sky. You can also consider other features, like brick walls or the south facing side of the house, which will absorb heat by day and release it by night. Planting close to heat reservoirs like these can make the difference for plants that are prone to getting a little chilly.
As you contemplate where to put your fall crops, create space by removing the plants that have already died, like the spring peas, or have gone to seed, like lettuce, cilantro and spinach. The gaps created by this cleanup are good places to plant your fall crops. Another good spot is the garlic patch, if you have one. The garlic will have been harvested by now, leaving a large blank spot in your garden to be filled in by cold-tolerant fall crops.
Dig up the soil, pull the weeds, and if the sun is really intense, shade the ground for a few days to let it cool off before planting. Mix in compost if you've got it, and generally make a hospitable spot for a midsummer's planting.
As in spring, the summer planter has a choice between starting seeds indoors in pots, or sowing them directly into the dirt. Starting plants indoors is more of a necessity in spring, in order to get the plants growing without exposing them to damaging cold. But summer is a tricky time to grow starts in a greenhouse, for you or your plants. Growing plants indoors during the summer heat is a job that's best left to the professionals, as young plants in small pots without much soil will dry out and die in the blink of an eye.
Most farmers will by now have started their own fall seedlings in their greenhouses, although few will bother bringing any extra starts to the farmers market to sell. There's too much produce to deal with, and keeping potted seedlings perky during a hot summertime market is nearly impossible. But if you're friendly with any farmers it's worth asking if they have any starts to spare.
Transplanting seedlings into the hot ground can be very stressful for the young plants. If you go this route, do it by evening, and water them in well. That way they will have all night to recover, and come to equilibrium in their new home. After that, water them morning, noon and night for about a week to help with the adjustment. Because of the hazards of transplanting, I prefer planting seeds directly into the garden.
I just received an order of escarole, endive and radicchio seeds from Gourmet Seeds. These bitter greens will be the focus of my fall garden. They can handle a nip or two of cold, but I'll be ready with my reme to tuck them in.
Every region of the country will have a different set of possibilities for a fall garden, determined largely by the first frost date of fall. So the fall gardener must figure out when that first frost date generally is, and consult the seed package to determine how many days until maturity, and then do a little math. Sow your seeds, and cover with some kind of mulch, like compost. This will help keep the little plants cool and moist. Then add water. Lots of it.