Nancy Brachey

Get your fall vegetables going and growing

Mixtures of leaf lettuce varieites add color, shape and texture to the salad garden
Mixtures of leaf lettuce varieites add color, shape and texture to the salad garden File photo

This difficult summer of heat, humidity and drought has many gardeners yearning for a fresh start, a sign that the long, productive season of autumn is getting near.

That means it’s time to give some thought – and take action – on fall vegetables. These are great crops for the Piedmont, given our long growing season through the autumn.

Leafy greens can be grown from seeds while others are best set out as young plants bought at garden centers.

Many gardeners who value these crops save space in their vegetable beds. Others will free up space by removing summer crops that are at or near their end. The big piece of luck is that these beds are already well prepared, sparing us a lot of hot work. Clearing the old crops and digging up the soil gently will usually suffice. A fresh application of compost will also.

The time frame for some of these crops, especially the leafy greens, is wide, but you should start thinking about them now.

Leaf lettuce and spinach make excellent choices for a home gardener and are suitable for beds or containers. Wide pots placed near a kitchen door or on a deck can be a good first step to fall vegetable gardening. Both perform best with small sowings every 10 days or so until late September. Some gardeners keep going later. The advancing cooler weather (bring it on!) will keep these leafy plants going and growing through the autumn and, with protection on the coldest nights, into winter.

Seed racks contain many choices. Among the lettuce varieties, Salad Bowl and Black-Seeded Simpson are favorites, but many combinations of lettuce exist. Some make quite artistic combinations for beds and containers as well as on salad plates.

Choice also exists for spinach. Unlike lettuce, spinach requires closer attention to spacing. Seed envelopes will give recommendations for thinning once the young plants emerge. Where thinning is required, you can gently transplant thinned plants.

Beets make a good fall crop. Seeds should be sown now and thinned to about 2 inches. Many choices in size exist. Carrot seeds may also be sown now in soil that is very loose and deep enough to let the root expand to natural size. As with beets, thinning is required.

Two popular fall crops are broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and they are best grown now from young plants sold in garden centers. Both should go into the ground between now and late August. Set broccoli plants about 18 inches apart; Brussels sprouts, about 20 inches apart.

Pay close attention to watering seeds after planting and seedlings as they develop. They tend to have a low tolerance for drying out. Young plants you bought will also require watering.

More fall crops exist, but these make the best choices for someone just beginning to discover this excellent niche of gardening.

Nancy Brachey:

Tips for success

It’s not fall yet. Play close attention to watering seeds, seedlings and young plants to prevent loss from drying out. Water in the morning.

Don’t crowd plants. Keep the seed envelope that includes spacing recommendations. Don’t depend on your memory. Plants must have enough space between them to develop well.

Stagger most plantings. Plant small amounts several times, especially of leafy crops such as spinach and lettuce. This should stretch the harvest through the autumn and into winter.

Rev up the soil. Clean up the planting spaces by removing stems, leaves and roots of plants that grew through the summer. Add compost to freshen the soil.

Beware the pests. Watch for insects. Slugs, too, may be drawn to the damp area of a garden and will feast on leafy crops.