Fall in love with fall gardening

Gardening advice from Chapel Hill, NC

 

If you are a gardener but aren't "fall gardening", it is time to start. You are missing the best season for gardening here in NC! Even if you are new to gardening, fall is the ideal season to start that "first garden", and here is why:

 

  • Some of the tastiest and healthiest vegetables thrive in the cool season of fall and winter:
    Kale, rainbow chard, arugula, cilantro, turnips, beets, carrots, cabbage, mizuna, bok choy, cabbage, collards, broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach and radishes all prefer the cool weather that fall brings.

 

  • There are substantially less pests and weeds to contend with. Once the first frost comes, many vegetables like collards and spinach get tastier and the bugs won't be the ones tasting them! Most of your weeds will go dormant or die and your vegetables will be the garden showpiece.
    • Helpful Hint: I like to seed buckwheat in my garden in late summer/early fall. Buckwheat is a fast cover crop that provides forage for bees. It also fixes nitrogen and improves soil texture. It is not frost tolerant in the very least, and I like to work this to my advantage. It takes only 20 days from seeding to grow to about a foot in height and start to flower. When hit with the first frost, it will fall and lay in a garden as a lovely mulch. In the spring it will often reseed again, and will help keep the first round of spring weeds at bay.

 

 One of my favorite gardening tricks is to make seed mixes that are 80% leafy greens and 20% root crops. This method of planting is modeled after the way plants grow in nature, and the leafy greens help give the root crops the space that they need to grow a nice big root.

One of my favorite gardening tricks is to make seed mixes that are 80% leafy greens and 20% root crops. This method of planting is modeled after the way plants grow in nature, and the leafy greens help give the root crops the space that they need to grow a nice big root.

  • Speaking of seeds, there are so many plants that are easy to start from seed. I know many new gardeners are hesitant to try seeds but I'm here to offer some encouragement. Try planting seeds that offer high success rates and you will be won over by their magic and ease. 
    • Some of the best plants for starting from seed are: lettuces, arugula, turnips, rutabaga, radishes, beets, daikon, kohlrabi, collards, kale, carrots, cilantro
    • Try making seed mixes with plants that are good companions. Vegetables that are eaten for the root pair well with lettuces and arugula, which have shallower root systems and help space out the root crops (which makes bigger roots!). Lettuce acts as a green "mulch" for plants like beets and radishes.
    • Helpful Hint: a good general rule of thumb is that the size of a seed determines how much soil it wants on top of it. Tiny seeds need only be gently pressed into loose soil. Larger seeds need to be about as deep as the seed is "tall". Most fall crops come from very small seeds so they only need to be sowed in loose soil, gently raked in and only a dusting of soil on top.
    • After seeding a bed, give the seeds a gently shower of water until they sprout. 

 

  • Some favorite fall alliums are easily planted as bulbs. Bulbs are perfect for gardens that have kid helpers because they are so easy to handle and plant. You simply tuck them in beneath the soil and let them be until the spring.
    • You can find onion and scallion bulbs at your local garden supply store. My favorite place to go is Country Farm and Home in Pittsboro, NC.
    • Plant onions and garlic towards the end of September and lay down a layer of mulch.

 

  • You will score some beautiful and colorful edible winter landscaping. Generally speaking, fall gardens are less fussy, lower maintenance, and more beautiful with rich colorful cabbages, collards and rainbow chards adding edible color to your winter landscape.

The fall planting window for North Carolina starts August 15 and runs until about the first of October, although more seasoned gardens and farmers have methods of extending this. Some seeds, such as spinach and lettuces, will need cooler temperatures before germinating. Root vegetables, such as beets, turnips and carrots, do well to be seeded during those last two weeks of August, while leafy greens can usually wait until early September.

For more detailed information about North Carolina planting dates, there is an excellent chart on the Growing Small Farms website (through the NC Ag Extension).

Marianne Maschal