Keeping the garden train rolling

by Ari LeVaux

It’s the height of summer and the harvest has only just begun, but it’s already time to start over in the garden. Here in the northern hemisphere, the second growing season is on. The seeds we sow in summer will produce this autumn, after which they will hopefully linger a while into winter.

Fall gardens behave differently then spring gardens. They start off more quickly and peter out more slowly. They have more relaxed personalities. The weeds don’t grow as fast. And while baby spring crops are vulnerable to cold, baby fall crops are threatened by heat and dryness. It may all seem like a bunch of unnecessary work when you’d rather go tubing down the river, but the potential rewards of a fall garden are many.

For some, a fall garden offers redemption. If your regular season garden came up short, or didn’t come up at all, a summer planting can help you salvage the year.

For those with limited space, a fall garden results automatically from the practical strategy of filling any empty space as soon as it appears with new plants.

Committed fall growers have a new round of seedlings already started in their greenhouses. Broccoli, kale, lettuce, mizuna, tatsoi and other Asian greens are all great summertime seedlings to plant – if you can get them. Alas, summer planting isn’t like in spring, when casual growers can pick up seedlings at the farmers market. In summer, if you want seedlings for a fall garden you’ll have to sprout them yourself.

By all means, ask around at the farmers market and try to find out if anyone has extra starts in their greenhouses. Otherwise, take heart. Most fall crops are started from seed, including beets, spinach, turnip, lettuce, kale, Asian greens, and radishes.

Spinach is the ultimate fall crop. It will hang on into winter and produce hearty salads as the days turn gray. Eventually it will die back, but only temporarily. That same spinach will return with a vengeance in spring, which means that by planting spinach next week you’re sowing the first seeds of spring. So get a large package of spinach seed, and sow it several times in different places over the next few weeks to make sure enough plants take hold.

The spinach plants I planted in spring, meanwhile, are sowing their own next generation. The heat of summer has changed the tender plants into tall, bitter-tasting seed factories, and I let them do their thing. The seeds fall on the ground, as do seeds of cilantro, mustard greens, radishes, turnips and whatever else goes to seed. As the seeds come up I’ll decide which ones I should let live. It’s the easiest fall garden ever.

All summer plantings, seed and start alike, must be kept wet – otherwise they will quickly die in the hot weather. So once you plant or sow your fall crops, keep them extra wet until they get established. Then you can scale back a bit in the frequency of irrigation.

Garlic growers have an interesting fall gardening opportunity after their July garlic harvest, when a bare field is exposed in dramatic fashion. Garlic is a heavy feeder, and takes its toll on the nutrients and organic matter in the soil. So regardless of what your future plans may be for that land, you’ll want to amend the soil after pulling out a big garlic crop by mixing in some compost or well-aged manure.

An exception to the post-harvest manure spreading rule is in order if you have a garlic patch like mine, in which many kinds of seeds were sown all spring long in the shade of the garlic plants. When I pulled the garlic, this shaded understory burst out into full sun and is growing fast.

I don’t want to shovel compost or manure onto my radicchio, endive or lettuce leaves, so for a less invasive shot in the arm I spray fish emulsion on my post-garlic fall garden to help make up for the post-garlic nutrient depletion. It will smell rather strong for a day or two, but you can eat out of your garden again by day three.

For more detailed ideas on various extended season topics, check out the work of Eliot Coleman, the godfather of year-round farming. Coleman has gathered and created many important techniques for keeping yourself in garden-fresh food through the winter. You can find his information and buy his books at

The success of your fall garden depends largely on how well you know your place. You need to figure out which plant varieties grow well in your home ground over the extended season, as well as keep track of which storage methods will help which produce make it through your winters. When you’re constantly thinking six, seven, eight months ahead, you’re not just four-season gardening. You’re farming.

I know an old farmer whose beets help keep him warm in the winter. He’s become an expert on keeping them in top form for months.

“I used to store beets in a bushel of moist sand, but they got shriveled and worthless after a few months,” he says. “Now I leave them in the ground all winter, and dig them up as I need them.”

This technique led my farmer friend to a variety of Egyptian beets he’s been getting from He likes them because a summer planting will stay hard and sweet in the ground all winter long.

“They don’t get an earthy taste in the ground over the winter like some beets do.”

He covers his beet patch with a thick layer of straw mulch. If you have really cold winters where you live, you might want to use an old blanket or quilt on top of the beets, and cover the blanket with straw. When you lift the blanket the straw will come up with it, along with any snow that has accumulated on top. Underneath, your beets will be hard and sweet. The same technique works for carrots as well.

So, as you frolic in the salads and stir-fries of summer, be mindful of the impending winter. If you can enjoy the fun as you get it done, planting for fall, winter and spring will pay off. Turning your growing operation into more than just a summer vacation will transform your diet and your life. Getting started is as easy as planting a seed. •



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