After the summer heat abates and a cooling rain sets in, it’s time to consider an autumn garden. Although a summer garden is what we all prize, an autumn garden is one of the sweetest times of the year to grow that last harvest. Chard, radishes, spinach, parsley, lettuces—the crops that define a green spring may be easier to grow in autumn. Seeds germinate quickly in cooling temperatures and the weather is generally more settled. And if you’re exhausted from pulling up tomato vines and prickly squash plants, take heart. An autumn garden is quick and easy.
Autumn marks the end of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant—the tender and loved produce of a long summer’s bounty. It’s easy to fall into a despondency, knowing that at least nine months will pass before we plant our starts of heirloom tomatoes or melons in the garden. Leaves are turning colors and the mornings, crisp and cool, rarely allow the green tomatoes to ripen.
I’ve learned that fall offers one more fling, a garden of lettuces, radishes, mâche, arugula, spinach and chard before days of freezing temperatures set in. And, if provided a temporary cover, a garden of exquisite greens will last well into December. An autumn garden often thrives more successfully than one planted by late spring or summer. Heat and drought are more depleting than moist cold. Many greens, like spinach and kale, will last into winter. An autumn garden reminds us that nature allows a second chance. And, as a salad lover, there’s no garden that pleases me more than an array of salad greenery.
I love a sea of lettuces—loose leaf, butterhead and romaine. To add color in a sea of green, I plant pansies or violas alongside the lettuces. Like greens, they prefer cool, moist soil and produce edible flowers. Violas also self-seed. Long after the lettuces have been harvested, the violas will bloom into the winter. Add their larger brethren, pansies, for an array of color. Plant them in rows between your lettuces, or tuck transplants among the greens. Either way, a greens garden delivers beauty and vitamins.
Lettuces, mâche (also called corn salad), spinach and arugula grow quickly. Sow seeds each week and you’ll have row after row of fast growing salad greens. The best managed salad gardens allow for harvesting a bowlful each day. Two or three months will provide a wealth of greens with only a bit of planning. As leaves fall, scatter them between the rows to mulch your greens.
First decide what greens are best for you. Take a close look at your garden. Has it been used all summer for beans and squash, tomatoes and peppers? Then consider scratching some organic fertilizer on top. Alfalfa pellets or cottonseed meal are good choices. Avoid manures or heavy chemical fertilizers. Greens don’t ask for much in the way of fertilizers, but they do need evenly moist soil with a mulch of grass clippings or fallen leaves. If slugs threaten, mulch thickly with dry pine needles.
Look at the available space. Is there extra room for scallions and radishes? Do you want to extend the season with kale and spinach? Is a quick harvest of mesclun lettuce most desirable? Make a list and head to your favorite catalogue or garden center.
This is the time to plant lettuces you loved in the spring. Broccoli thrives and chard will shake off the doldrums of heat. Radishes will be up in a flash. Best of all, your garden is already prepared. Yank out the dead and dying summer plants, rake the garden gently and coax a salad garden. After you’ve gathered a final crop, sow a cover crop of legumes or rye before the winter snows fly.
Even the pests may be gone. They’ve been hard at work since spring and now may have died, leaving egg sacs in the soil for next year. So you’ll be gardening without the challenge of eating your produce before another creature gets to it. The greens of autumn are among the most exquisite of all produce you’ll find—crisp and tender without a single bug bite.
My favorite autumn garden includes a collection of lettuces, radishes, chard and beet greens. Lettuces include romaines, leaf and butterhead. ‘Merlot’ loose-leaf, with its rich wine color, is beautiful as well as tender. A favorite heirloom, ‘Deer Tongue’ lettuce adds an interesting shape to the salad bowl. ‘Red Sails’ is an old-fashioned favorite, too. Butterhead lettuces, which frequently bolt in hot weather, are perfect for the autumn garden. Romaines or cos types take longer to mature but will hold better than other lettuces in both heat and cold changes. ‘Little Gem’ is a good choice and its small size indicates it will grow a bit faster than the larger leaved romaines.
Autumn will bring a bit more rain to keep a salad garden moist and that’s a boon. If cold temperatures threaten, or snows look likely, cover the crops with row cover and you may be able to continue the harvest for several weeks.
A few vegetables will strengthen with the coming of autumn. Chard will come roaring back if it was besieged by the summer heat, as will beets if carried over from the summer. I grow ‘Bull’s Blood’ heirloom beet not for the root, but for the greens to harvest throughout the autumn. Carrots sweeten, as do parsnips.
And I sow a variety of radishes, which will remain mild in cooling temperatures. Try the pink tipped French breakfast radish—an 19th century French heirloom. ‘White Icicle’, also an heirloom, has a long white tender root. There are also pink, swirled, red and purple radishes. Because the days are cooling, autumn radishes are likely to remain milder than you’d find in the spring.
Thyme and rosemary will continue through the autumn in the herb garden. In the salad garden, dill, parsley and cilantro appreciate autumn, too, and will be more abundant this time of the year rather than in the summer. And, finally, don’t forget spinach and arugula—two of the hardiest of the cool-loving crops that will survive a light dusting of snow.
Most salad crops like evenly moist soil, which I provide by spreading a layer of mulch in-between each row. Leaves or dried grass, hay or straw are perfect. With favorable autumn weather, you’ll be harvesting until November.
And one last fall planting: to grow the biggest garlic bulbs, plant them in mid-October. Treat them like a tulip bulb, planting them twice their length. Mulch them well throughout the winter to avoid the frost and heave problems typical of Colorado bulbs. By mid-July, they’ll be ready for harvest. Save your best for the following year and you’ll be able to keep your kitchen in garlic year around.
When snow or freezing temperatures arrive, throw a blanket over your crops, or make a small hoop frame to protect the garden at night. Remove the cover in the morning and, with daytime temperatures hovering around 40 to 60 degrees, the greens will grow week after week. If you want to extend the season a bit further, count on spinach and kale, but begin sowing those seeds six weeks before frost. If you’ve waited too late for those greens, corn salad, a tender green favored by the French, actually germinates and grows in cooler temperatures. Their peppery leaves add to any green salad. Imagination and some garden tinkering will reveal the exact greens that will flourish in your autumn garden.
Here are a few favorites:
Mustard Family–Radishes: French Breakfast—these small radishes are old-fashioned and beautiful, with red shoulders and a white tip. In about three weeks pop them from the soil. Do thin them when they first emerge; otherwise you’ll get plenty of leafy growth but no root development.
Arugula, also sold as Roquette—a spicy green with a growing fan club. Harvest outside leaves because this green will continue to grow even through the first snowy storms.
In the same family is kale, nature’s toughest garden plant. Kale requires some time to mature but in six weeks you’ll have mature leaves that will keep into the early snows. Mulch kale, arugula and spinach to protect them from cold spells.
Spinach: Plant alongside your lettuces. They will take colder temperatures than lettuces, but will hold up better with some simple covering when frost arrives. You also can sow spinach seeds in fall, let them winter over and watch their tiny grass-like spikes emerge in March for an early crop.
Sunflower Family–Lettuces: simply sprinkle the soil around lettuce seeds because they require light to germinate. Too tender to survive real cold, rely on them to grow fast and harvest as immature lettuces.
Loose-leaf–Red Sails—an, exquisite red-tipped lettuce. Cover from frost. Most leaf lettuces are successful in an autumn garden. Harvest the outside leaves so that the inner leaves will continue to mature. The old standby, ‘Black-seeded Simpson’ matures in 45 days and can be harvested before maturity. ‘Deertongue’ matures in 55 days; this heirloom lettuce is lovely.
Butterhead lettuces require 50 days to mature, but who cares about letting them mature? Harvest them as tiny heads whenever you please. ‘Tom Thumb’ is a miniature. Also, look for butterhead lettuces touted for cool weather planting. And the beautiful French heirloom, ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’ matures in 65 days, again worth harvesting before maturity.
Romaine lettuce takes some time to mature into an impressive head, perhaps 70 days. Again, like the butterhead, harvest Romaine when it is tiny.
Crisphead lettuces (like iceberg), usually grown for their mature heads, are the least likely to adapt to an autumn garden.
Valerian Family: Mache or Corn Salad—these lovely rosettes grow best in very cool weather and are ready within a month for harvest. Plant successive sowings for continual harvest. Although garden books will suggest thinning, don’t discard your thinnings. They will add to your mesclun salad.