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Fall is for Planting

This article was originally published on September 17, 2012 and expired on October 1, 2012. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Autumn's arrival does not signal the end of fresh produce from the garden. "With a little advance planning, you can continue to reap the bounty of fresh, tender greens, sweet carrots, and beets," said Greg Stack, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Even in Illinois, it is possible to grow fresh vegetables late into the fall and, with some light cover, early winter," said Stack.

There are some plants that flourish in the cooler, moister weather in the fall.

"Think about lettuce, spinach, radishes, kale, carrots, Asian greens, beets, and maybe a few cool-season flowers like calendula and violas," Stack recommended. "All of these crops are easy to start from seed, and many garden centers still have seed racks in place with seed packets at a reduced price."

Check the "days to maturity" indication on the seed packet. Add 14 days to the number and then subtract that sum from the average first frost date for local area to get a ball-park seed-starting date. For example, to grow spinach that matures in 40 days, sow the seed 54 days before the frost date.

Crops such as spinach and lettuce do not germinate well in warm soils. To get around this problem, start the seed indoors or in containers placed in the shade and then transplant the seedlings to the garden. Sow seeds in the shade of taller plants, such as corn or tomatoes.

"Or take the advice of the Old Farmer's Almanac," Stack said. "It suggests moistening the soil and then laying down a bale of straw. A week later, the soil under the straw could be as much as 10 degrees cooler."

To extend the harvest well past the first frost date and maybe even to when the first snowflakes appear, consider some type of season extender.

"Construct a box around your salad greens with straw bales and lay some old storm windows across the top," Stack said. "This serves as a cold frame and will protect the crop, allowing you to harvest well past the time many gardens have fallen to the frost."

Another technique he suggested is to bend thin, plastic water pipe into hoops over the row and then pull clear plastic sheeting over the hoops. The plastic can be lifted during the sunny part of the day and closed at night for protection. Excellent fall greens and root crops grow well in these hoop houses.

"If you don't want to bother building protective devices, plant crops such as broccoli, spinach, chard, Asian greens, kale, collards and Brussels sprouts," Stack said. "These crops are naturally very tolerant of frosts and will last well into the season until a very hard frost occurs."

For root crops such as carrot, beets, turnips, and parsnips, mulch over the row with a thick cover of straw. Straw will protect the crop and prevent the soil from freezing. To harvest, pull back the straw, dig the crop, and re-cover the row with the straw. It might even be possible to harvest root crops even when there is a cover of snow on top of the straw.

"So, while the 2012 gardening season was filled with challenges, give fall gardening a try," he said. "If you put a little effort into choosing and sowing the right crops, you can still end the season on a productive note and maybe even have some home-grown salad greens and root crops for your Thanksgiving dinner."

Source: Greg Stack, Extension Horticulturist, gstack@illinois.edu

Pull date: October 1, 2012

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