Seed packets adorn my countertop. The grow light clicks on at 6 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it’s typical February day in my house.
But no, it’s September.
In my first garden, seven years ago, I couldn’t wait to put the garden to bed. The research, preparation, planting, pest-fighting, and harvest wore me — as we say in Arkansas — plumb out. I surveyed that late September garden, grateful for the first time in my life for seasons. Rest couldn’t come soon enough.
But the garden itch over the next few years intensified, like a desire that couldn’t be assuaged. No longer did I yearn for winter, when I could press pause on the garden chores. Instead, I wanted more.
Within a couple of years, I began experimenting with a few fall crops. A carrot planting here, a spinach planting there. And garlic. Of course, garlic.
As I dipped my toe in the cool water of the fall garden, the titillating unknown beckoned me to come deeper, deeper each year. I discovered why seasoned gardeners describe the fall garden as the best-kept gardening secret. And once I found myself swimming in these waters, I couldn’t keep the secret to myself.
Many people overlook the fall garden, and I admit, it carries with it a mystery, a learning curve of its own. But the best way to experience the hidden jewel of growing in autumn is to take small steps of discovery. While the summer garden rushes with the intensity of a quick and powerful tsunami, the fall garden beckons like a gentle brook.
If you want to test out the refreshing waters of the fall garden, here are five crops I recommend trying first. I’ve found these to thrive in the beautiful Arkansas autumn.
Lettuce. Depending on the type, lettuce can handle frost and even light freezes and can last into November or later (other salad greens, like arugula, will survive most of the winter). Covering with floating row covers offers additional season extension. Scatter seeds on the warm September soil, rake in gently but not deeply, and water thoroughly.
Carrots. The best-tasting carrots are ones you harvest in the late fall and winter; freezing temperatures accelerate the natural sugar content. The challenge with carrots lies in their germination. It can take weeks for the v-shaped slivers to poke out of the soil, and they require constant moisture — a challenge if fall rains delay. Direct-sow carrots in September and keep them moist until germination. Once true leaves appear, they will grow mostly on their own.
Though fast-growers might be ready to harvest in late fall, I typically harvest large roots in January or February.
Broccoli. If spring-planted broccoli bolted before you could harvest the head, try planting broccoli in the fall. Though it is too late to start seeds, you can purchase transplants at local garden centers. Plant in fertile, well-draining soil (raised beds are great), and watch out for cabbage worms. Prevent these worms with floating row covers or spray with the organic pesticide BT at the first sign of damage. Mature broccoli can survive below-freezing temperatures; I can usually harvest until early January.
Spinach. The most winter-hardy crop I grow, spinach can be planted as transplants or directly sown into the garden in late September or even October. Expect to harvest in the fall, but leave the plant through the winter. Though growth will pause for several weeks surrounding the winter solstice, you’ll find spinach will thrive as the days begin lengthening in January. In my garden, I harvest spinach from late January through April.
Garlic. If you want a “set it and forget it” crop, garlic is your best choice. Purchase seed garlic online, or in a pinch you can plant organic garlic from the grocery store (it must be organic). Plant cloves in late October or early November and expect to harvest in June. Mulch well and keep weeded. For a space-saving option, plant spinach and garlic in the same bed.
I’m glad I didn’t jump into the deep end of fall gardening all at once. I would have missed the experience of learning how these particular crops respond to our Arkansas climate. As you test out these crops, make mental notes of what works well and what challenges you face. And just like we do in our summer gardens, use those learning experiences to adjust for the next season.
You may find that you prefer fall gardening over the summer garden, and then you’ll discover gardeners’ best-kept secret yourself.