Garden Like a Boss

Garden Like a Boss: Maxin’ the Fall Garden

By James Loomis

Summer garden, I have a confession to make. I’m no longer in love with you. I can’t take it anymore. You’re just so demanding, always needing me to water you and weed you, all while it’s HOT outside and my friends are leaving for rafting trips and festivals. When we entered this relationship I was hungry for zucchini and tomatoes, but seriously, you’ve been smothering the sauce right out of me. I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving you, summer garden. But I still wanna be friends.

Fall can be one of the most productive times in the garden. Unfortunately most gardeners are too burned out to take advantage of this season. Don’t let this be you, my clever reader.

On the other hand, maybe you missed the whole summer garden scene and are feeling some regret. No fear—there’s still time for a 2015 garden!

This is the ideal time for planting cool weather crops, trees and perennials. Bonus: Trees and perennials are often on clearance at garden centers, now, too!

Easy and delicious

Cool weather crops grown in the spring and fall are actually some of the easiest, consistently highest yielding plants a gardener can grow. Fall has a distinct advantage over spring in that many of our favorite cool weather crops prefer to grow in a transition from warm to cool (fall), over cool to warm (spring). Incredibly, these plants taste sweeter as the cool weather sets in. Lettuces, arugula, and all of your brassica (kale, collards, bok choi, mustard, broccoli, etc.) begin to take on luxurious new sweetness with the cold and will even tolerate light frosts and maintain great production. I’m willing to bet that most people who don’t like kale have only tasted nappy summer kale and not luscious November kale. If you have kale lingering from earlier in the season that look homely and tired, just prune them, feed them, and watch them explode with new vigor and flavor as things cool off.

“But where do I plant?!”

If your garden is already teeming with tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, you’ve got to exercise a little ingenuity. Look closer. I’m sure you can find at least half a dozen planting locations to plug in some seeds. I call this the “hidden farm,” those little pockets of unused space amongst your other plants. Look even closer and I bet you’ll start to notice unproductive plants that are past their prime and ready to come out. Yank them and pop some seeds in the void they left behind. You can gain even more ground by getting some starts going (just like you did in spring), and then plugging them in after it’s a little more obvious what summer crops can come out. Notice the area beneath really tall plants, like those massive tomatoes you have trellised. Tackle some additional real estate and plant under there. That’s a prime place to tuck in some cover crops.

Cover crops

Technically speaking, a cover crop is any plant sown with the express purpose of benefitting your garden in a way that is not directly food for you. This reason can be to enhance the soil, provide food or shelter for beneficial insects, grow biomass, fix nitrogen, or some combina­tion of any of the above. Nature abhors bare soil, and planting cover crops will take your growing up a notch. A challenge urban gardeners face when planting cover crops is when and where to squeeze them in amongst an already crowded small plot. That’s where our understory planting comes in.

By seeding our cover crops in the understory of our larger trellised plants, they’ll get established early. Prune some of your lower leaves and branches on these crops and scatter in your cover crop seeds. Cover with a thin layer of compost, and off they grow! Once the frosts come in late October, you can remove the taller summer plants and, tada!, you have a huge head start on your cover cropping. A good stand of cover also prevents compaction by the winter snow and keeps the biology in your soil robust and thriving once all of your veggies are out. That’s maxin’ it like a boss.

My favorite fall cover crops are hairy vetch, field peas and berseem clover. All of these are legumes and once their roots are incorporated into the soil after their life cycle they leave nitrogen for the following planting. Growing your own fertilizer, boss move again.

Plant garlic now

No fall planting is complete without garlic! Garlic should go in now, and once it is established can be mulched heavily with straw and will thrive right thru the winter. In fact, garlic needs this overwintering to be successful.

For the tastiest result, source a high quality seed garlic. Conventional garlic from the grocery store is often treated with anti-sprouting agents. Good organic garlic from the grocery store often produces just fine, but store garlic is often limited to varietals with a long shelf life. You can find premium seed garlic at many farmers markets this time of year, with much more variety to choose from.

Beneficial insect habitat

Before you plant every last space, however, consider this. In my garden designs I advise that 15-20% of the total growing area be dedicated to beneficial insect habitat. Plant the perennials now so that they’ll be productive and thriving next spring.

When thinking about plants to attract our beneficial predator insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and syrphid flies, my rule of thumb is: big clusters of small flowers. Look for perennial alyssum, yarrow and anise hyssop as well as native clumping perennial grasses to provide cover.

One other vital tip for sustaining your beneficial insects: don’t over-tidy your garden this fall with pre-winter clean-up. Our insect friends need places to overwinter and they’ll generally do this in our dormant perennials, mulches and leaf litter. While it can be quite rewarding to get in there and detail out every nook and cranny, you’ll be booting out your insect allies at the same time.

Homework assignment

Take a moment and map out your garden. Right now, while everything is thriving, is the best time to catalogue what is growing, and where. It doesn’t need to fancy, or to scale, just a simple drawing of your garden beds with a note on what is planted in them. Trust me, trying to remember what was planted this year when looking at bare soil in the spring is more difficult than you think. Until next time, let’s keep growing this thing.

We are happy to be welcoming James Loomis back to Utah!

This article was originally published on August 30, 2015.