Extension Educator, Horticulture
Has your vegetable garden become a scary place? Are weeds grabbing your ankles as you walk by? Or has your garden flooded so many times the plants have sent up white flags of surrender? Good news, it's not too late to have a productive garden.
A late season garden offers some advantages over a spring garden. It can be less work if the soil was already prepared in the spring. Seeds are often on sale this time of year. And maybe you have more time now than in the spring.
Many vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower grown for late season harvest are actually better quality because of the cooler weather when the heads are forming. Some vegetables such as kale, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and Swiss chard actually develop a better, sweeter flavor after a frost.
Before planting a fall garden, remove any crop or weed residue. Do not work the soil unless absolutely necessary especially if it is wet. Plant seeds at the proper depth as instructed on the seed packet. Cover seed with vermiculite or potting soil to prevent crusting of the soil surface. Keep the soil evenly moist with frequent light sprinklings. The upper inch of soil should be kept moist at all times until the seeds germinate.
Keeping seeds moist after planting is more of a challenge in the summer. However warm soil temperatures promote rapid germination. One way to help hold moisture in seedbeds is to use a light mulch of straw or grass clippings. The mulch should be pulled back once seedlings emerge. Also watering should be less frequent but more thorough by wetting at least the top 8 inches of soil once seedlings emerge.
Some vegetables for a late season garden are beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, snap beans, and summer squash. These can be planted through late August into early September here in central Illinois. Check seed packets for the days until harvest. Our average date of first frost is October 20, which gives us at least 100 days for crops that tolerate light frosts.
Cabbage can be direct seeded into the garden. Broccoli and cauliflower are best started in the garden as transplants. Unfortunately garden centers generally do not have late season transplants. More than likely you will have to direct seed or start your own transplants indoors or in a seedling bed outdoors. Most transplants will need late June to mid-July seeding to be large enough to transplant into the garden.
Other late season vegetables are kohlrabi, leafy crops, and turnips. Leaf lettuce, mustard and spinach can be planted as late as mid-September in central Illinois. Garlic is planted September – October for next year's crop.
Crops such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and root crops can be left in the garden until the weather becomes quite cold. In the fall beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips can be mulched with straw, leaves or floating row covers, left in the garden and harvested into winter. Spinach and Swiss chard can be wintered over with the help of floating row covers for a harvest of spring greens.
Floating row covers are made of white, lightweight material that allows water and sun to penetrate. Placed directly on top of plants or used with a frame it is especially useful with broccoli, cabbage and leafy crops to protect against insects, heat, and frost. It can be used over transplants of crops such as squash but will have to be removed once flowers form to allow bee pollination.
Start now so you can harvest fresh produce as you dig out your football sweaters.