For the past three years that I have been part of the Good Growing column, I have written an article on gardening in the fall. And before that my predecessor, Mike Roegge, would write about the joys of fall gardening. Yes, you are about to read yet another piece on gardening in the fall. This is our subtle way of suggesting fall gardening is the best gardening. Though after all these years, the subtly may be wearing off.
If you have a garden dedicated solely to the summer, you should plant a fall garden. There are certain "gateway plants" that can get you hooked to growing in the waning days of summer heat. Turnips, Swiss chard, and lettuces are great for the beginning fall gardener. My gateway plant was kale. I know, I know I may have just lost you with that four-letter word, but trust me, kale grown in the fall is delightful. The cooler temperatures trigger the plant to produce more sugars, giving kale a much better flavor than if harvested in the spring or, perish the thought, summer.
My first fall garden had twenty kale plants. Which were nineteen too many. Lower kale leaves are harvested as the plant grows up. By the end of autumn, my kale plants were three foot tall, and my wife told me "Never again!" Still, it was quite satisfying growing our food through New Years.
To protect a bed of turnips and pac choi that first fall, I built a cold frame. Cold frames are wedge-shaped boxes, with the angled top facing south, and a transparent top. We used a rigid polyvinyl covering, though I have seen many gardeners use old windows. Today, I extend the season by using low tunnels, which can cheaply cover and protect all of my garden beds.
In my opinion, the best fall crops are carrots and spinach due to the heightened sweet flavor from the cold temperatures. Carrots harvested in the late fall and into winter are known as candied carrots, and they are a real treat, though I do have difficulty growing carrots in my soil. However, the spinach is almost unstoppable, lasting me until the next spring when warm temperatures cause it to bolt.
This fall we will be growing more cabbage and pac choi, to limit our meat consumption. This is not due to my family turning vegetarian, far from it. The use of cabbage and pac choi is because we are now feeding three growing boys, and these two vegetables work well to bulk up starches like rice.
If you are interested in starting a fall vegetable garden, I will be leading two free workshops September 14 in Galesburg and September 15 in Macomb. During this two-hour class, we will discuss cool-season gardening methods for harvesting fresh vegetables in the fall and using season extension techniques for winter harvest. This workshop will use hands-on components, including planting fall crops and building a low tunnel. You will also have a chance to take home cool season vegetables to plant in your home garden. Register online at http://go.illinois.edu/FallGarden or contact Amanda Christenson at 309-342-5108.And yes, I will be handing out kale at the workshop to get everyone hooked on fall gardening. Mostly because my wife won't let me bring them home. I have plenty of recipes if you need them.