The Call and Times, Column 28 – Prepping for Fall – The Garden in Transition

29 09 2015

(August 30, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Prepping for Fall – The Garden in Transition

Two weeks ago, we talked about the importance of making a Harvest Plan – a well-though-out strategy for using and preserving the glut of produce that we are blessed with at this time of year. I brought up some tips from my own garden and kitchen, and hopefully inspired you to find ways to can, freeze, root cellar, and dry your garden’s bounty, so you can enjoy it well into the winter months.

Now, as the steady march towards the fall becomes ever more obvious, with the cooler nights and the first changing leaves, it’s time to discuss a task that is arguably just as important as food preservation – smoothly transitioning the urban farm into the fall and winter months.

When I visited Cluck Urban Farm Supply last month, the store’s owner Drake Patten left me with an important bit of advice: “end your season as you began it, with intention”. Given the busy six months that many of us have already invested in the garden at this point, it’s often easy to neglect some vital fall garden tasks, those that would otherwise make our lives easier and increase production in the months and years to come.

These jobs include three big categories: seed saving, extending the season, and putting the garden to rest. I encourage each one of you (and, most of all, myself!) to try out some of the ideas below in your own gardens. Make the transition from summer to fall to winter as smooth and productive as possible.

Seed Saving

This is arguably the easiest of these tasks but, in my opinion, that which holds the most significance. Last year, I wrote about my Uncle Harry, great Aunt Petrula, and late great Uncle Demetre, and the nearly four-decade story of their selectively-bred “Russian Tomato”.

As I learned from them, by saving the seeds of your best, most productive, tastiest crops, you create a variety completely unique to your microclimate and garden. You are improving upon the hundreds and thousands of years’ worth of work that farmers, gardeners, and breeders have already put into a variety, and are making it easier to grow a superior product in your own urban farm.

Seed saving can be as simple as choosing the best fruit on the best plant, allowing it to completely ripen on the vine, and either letting it rot away on the vine, tying a plastic or mesh bag around it to catch the remains, or picking it ripe and letting it rot in a shady location, protected from animals. Once the fruit has rotted away, the seeds which remain are ready for planting, and can be stored in envelopes until the following year. Vegetables like lettuce, carrots, and onions can be left in the ground and allowed to flower and then go to seed (in the first or second year, depending on the crop). By tying a fine mesh bag around the ripening flower-head, the seed can be collected and stored the same way.

The fun in this comes from your personal definition of “best fruit” and “best plant”. Merely by saving the seeds of healthy, productive plants, you are adapting the species to your own microclimate – the rainfall, temperature, airflow, and pest populations of your own yard. But by selecting for specific characteristics – like the pointy-bottomed, meaty tomato that my Uncle Harry has made his current goal – you are forming the crop to your own, personal specifications, making a fruit or vegetable that you want to eat!

And on a more global scale, seed-saving ensures the preservation of the rich biodiversity that farmers and gardeners have thus far been able to coax out of the natural world. It is our heritage, and by improving upon open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, we all do our part to ensure the sustainability and self-sufficiency of our food system for generations to come.

Extending the Season

This year, I am making a concerted effort to have a productive fall garden. This can mean different things to different urban farmers, but in New England, there is a (relatively short) list of crops that will grow productively into the fall and winter.

This includes short-season root crops, like carrots, turnips, beets, and radishes, which can be grown during the fall and even left in the ground over winter, until they are needed; leafy green crops like lettuces and other salad greens, kale, cabbage, and certain other brassicas, and Swiss chard, some of which (brassicas and chard) actually benefit from frost and will continue producing into the late fall and beyond; and winter onion-family crops, like short-day onions, which are planted in the fall and grown (under some sort of plastic/greenhouse cover) over the winter, and garlic, which is planted in October and grows slowly until the following July.

Other than the relatively simple additional requirements of short-day onions, these crops can grow, with little protection, during some of the coldest months of our year. They should be planted right now (following the instructions on the seed packet) to give them time to gain some footing before the cooler weather comes.

To get even more out of the cold season, however, it is possible to buy or build a small-scale greenhouse of some sort. This could be as simple as a cloche (a small plastic or glass dome above an individual plant), a cold frame (raised bed with an old window laid on top), or a low tunnel (a half-soda-can shaped tunnel over a garden bed, constructed from PVC pipes and covered with thick plastic). It could also be much more complex a full greenhouse, passively solar heated or even electrically heated, with the option of setting it a few feet into the ground to utilize a little geothermal energy.

Whatever you choose, the temperature within a greenhouse is much warmer than the surrounding air, and can even remain above freezing throughout the winter.

Putting the Garden to Rest
Once the crops have borne their last fruit and the frost has arrived, if you decide not to grow fall and winter crops, it is time to end the growing season with as much attention to soil fertility and overall health as you began it.

First and foremost, this includes cleaning up dead, spent, and diseased plants, adding them to your compost pile or (better yet) feeding them to your chickens. This helps to minimize the overwintering of pests and diseases in the plants, and ensures that the garden is clean come springtime.

You also want to focus now, more than any other time of year, on directly improving soil fertility and taking measures to prevent its loss. Cover cropping is the growing of cool-season varieties of grasses, legumes, and other plants that naturally mulch and protect the soil over winter, and provide some fresh biomass to till into your garden come spring. Absent this, or maybe in addition, a few inches of good mulch (shredded fall leaves, cut grass, straw or hay, and even compost) will protect the soil from erosion and decay slowly over winter, adding to the soil’s fertility. Finally, fall is the time to add soil amendments: manure or compost for fertility and lime for soil pH.

Many of these activities tie well into the chicken coop, rabbit hutch, or other small urban livestock. They can be a source of manure (and, in the case of chickens, calcium amendments from their eggshells), and cover crops can serve as a green food supply for them during the cold months.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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