Fall is almost here – it’s August in the Rockies folks. The days have been getting shorter since June (JUNE!), the chill in the evening air is but a few weeks away, and the angle of the light is starting to change. Fall just happens to be my favorite season (minus the stacking of firewood – not a big fan of that part), and it also happens to be my favorite time to garden in Colorado. Why, you ask? Well, let me count the ways:
- No hail storms (usually)
- Cooler temperatures
- Less watering of the garden (see above)
- Fewer weeds
- Fewer pests
Fall is that magical time when there is still enough daylight to grow vegetables, but many of the Spring and Summer hazards are not present. If you’ve had difficulty gardening in the Spring or Summer, don’t give up on Fall – this time of year just might be your best shot at a nice harvest. Many weeds and pests are specific to Spring and Summer, and don’t make an appearance in as high of numbers in the Fall. Hail storms are rare in the Fall (although a freeze and occasional snow are not rare), and because of the cooler temperatures your garden soil will hold moisture longer. So let’s see, less weeding, fewer bugs, less watering, and less severe weather. Hmmm – sounds like the best time to grow to me.
August 1st is almost a little late for some fall gardening activities – some folks have already started their brassica seeds in flats by now (not me – don’t worry, I’m right there with you). If you haven’t started your seedlings for broccoli, cabbage, kale or other brassicas, definitely get those started this weekend. You’ll want as much time on those guys as possible to extend your season (winter can arrive abruptly around here). This weekend and for the next couple of weeks, start sowing other seeds directly into your soil (beets, carrots, turnips – those things that don’t transplant well). Keep your soil moist, and mulched only around mature plants. If you are direct sowing seed, remove the mulch from those areas until the seedlings get a good start – you can add the mulch back on later.
Fall is actually our true cool season, even though we garden in the Spring in much the same manner. The difference is this – Spring is heating up, and Fall is cooling down. In the Spring we are working against the plants, trying to keep them from bolting or becoming bitter. In the Fall, the cooling trend actually improves the flavor of many vegetables, as the sugar structure of some plants changes when it’s hit with a light frost. If you pick the right varieties, watch for an early snow storm or heavy freezes (and take the appropriate precautions), you can garden well into November. I often pull the last of my Swiss chard and kale from gardens just before Thanksgiving.
So here’s your quick list – do these six things now (this weekend or next) for a fantastic fall garden:
- Start a flat of brassicas, lettuce, cilantro, parsley, Swiss chard, and any other leafy cool season green you can think of (I only grow broccoli in the Fall because of the flea beetles at my place in the Spring).
- Determine what warm season crops are coming out the garden, and when. This will help you make the best use of your space. Consider direct sowing some seeds around these other plants (see below), so when the summer plants come out, the seedlings that you planted will already be a couple of weeks old – this buys you some time. Work towards a transition rather than clearing out the warm season plants and starting over with cool season plants.
- Direct sow carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, salsify, peas, spinach, radishes, garlic, and any other cool season crop I didn’t think of. (*Note on radishes – plant these a bit later – they will bolt in late summer heat. Note on garlic – this will be harvested next year).
- Keep your soil moist where you have directly sown seeds; water lightly twice a day. This will give your seeds the best chance to sprout.
- If you have high tunnels, make sure those are dusted off and ready to go. The last thing you want to be doing as a storm is rolling in is trying to get your tunnels set-up to protect your vegetables. Have that gear ready to go and waiting in the wings, if not already in place. A light freeze is tolerated by most cool season vegetables, however they will need protection against a hard freeze or crushing snow.
- Have mulch on standby to cover your garden in the next month or so, as the plants begin to grow above the soil line.
So there you have it – your quick list to get your fall garden off to a great start. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating – if you’ve struggled gardening in the Spring or Summer, trust me when I tell you that Fall gardening doesn’t have as many hazards. Give it a go – you will be glad you did, and you’ll be eating garden produce for at least another three months.