Gardening is a year-round activity for our family. Although many people traditionally think of growing food as a spring-time pursuit, the reality is that, in our mild hometown of Vancouver, vegetables can be harvested almost year-round. Cold weather improves the flavour of many crops. It sweetens carrots and reduces the summertime bitterness of spicy greens like arugula. The fall is a joyous time of year, when the garden becomes a “living refridgerator” that requires little maintenance. Unlike the spring and summer, there’s no need for watering and little in the way of pest control or weeding. At this time of year, greens don’t bolt (go to seed) and will happily wait until you’re ready to pick them.
Each year, I get a bit better at planning our fall and winter garden. The process starts in July with the planting of kale, hardy greens and root crops. Our goal is to have things be full-size by the end of October. Because growth is so slow in the fall and winter, we plant in large quantities, even if that means being overwhelmed by an overly full garden in the summer and spring. We use row covers and mulch to keep our crops insulated as the weather gets colder. Learning the rhythms of the year, and figuring out how much to plant for a fall garden, is a fascinating and challenging pursuit, especially if you’ve been gardening for a while and want to take things to the next level.
While it’s too late to plant a fall garden now, there are things you can still do if you’re itching to sow some seeds. Garlic, broad beans and cover crops can be planted up until the first frost. If you’re feeling adventurous, try sowing some cold-hardy seeds, like arugula, romaine lettuce, peas, scallions and radishes in small pots. Keep them well-protected, and you might be rewarded with sprouts that survive the winter and then burst into life in the spring, giving you harvests weeks ahead of schedule.
So, what does a gardener eat in late October? Here are some of the things we’re harvesting:
- Carrots and beets. The carrots and beets we planted throughout the spring and summer are tasting delicious. Once we get our first frost, their flavour will get even better. The sad thing about these root crops is that one I harvest them, they won’t grow back. I can see our “living refridgerator” getting more empty by the week.
- Cucumbers and peppers. Weirdly enough, our cucumber and chili pepper plants are looking healthy and producing fruits without any weather protection. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that these crops need to be in a greenhouse to have any hope of a fall harvest. Apparently I’m wrong. Our chili plants were so small and sickly in the spring that I threw them into a part of the garden that’s still being developed and doesn’t have the best soil, not expecting much. After a rocky summer, they perked up in the fall and are making tons of fruit!
- Squash and pumpkins. With this year’s drought, we ended up with perfect but very tiny pumpkins. Next year, I’ll work on improving the irrigation systems in our squash beds, along with adding more compost and mulch, in order to get bigger fruits. Squash is a classic fall vegetable, and if you had a good harvest this year, they can happily live on your countertop for months.
- Kale. We planted two crops this year: rainbow lacinato in April and winterbor in July. The spring-planted crop is now over five feet tall. Unfortunately, our kale is plagued each fall with powdery mildew, which requires me to prune the plants back significantly. Thankfully, kale is such a tough plant that it can survive a bit of adversity.
- Cauliflower. Our cauliflower seeds were sown in mid-July and just got harvested. Like our pumpkins and chilies, I planted them in a new part of the garden where we are slowly improving the soil, and as a result, the heads were smaller than I would have liked. But they’re still awesome!
- Arugula, lettuce and chard. As long as we keep them protected from frost, these salad greens will keep growing happily. Our bed is covered with a row cover to take the edge off of our cooling weather.