A Fresh Start

Everyone loves the summer garden and its produce--fresh tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, basil... the flavors we wait for all year. But the summer garden can also be a demanding taskmaster, and things can get out of hand in a hurry if you are gone, the weather is too hot, or life intervenes. Now is the time to pull out the plants that are no longer yielding well or never worked out. Till or hoe out the weeds, and start over. If weeds are really severe, wet them down and cover with cardboard. By time your new transplants are ready to go in, the weeds will be dead.

Fall is a chance for a fresh start. The weeds won't grow so fast in winter, and the season of harvest goes for months and months. A few plants by the back door, or a bed of roots and greens for stews and roasting, will go a long way. Fall gardens are leisurely gardens, and Fall foods are comfort food.

Special Treats of Fall

Many gardeners assume that fall crops will be a repeat of spring--peas, lettuce, and so on. But some plants are meant by nature to sprout and grow in the fall. They prefer to sprout in soil that has had the summer to warm up, along with the longer nights and decreasing day lengths of autumn. They tend to bolt when spring-planted. They can be grown to perfection in the fall.

Thumb broccoli purple sprouting briteThe most familiar of these are the brassicas--all the cabbage tribe, like broccoli, cabbage, and kale. The most completely fall-adapted of these is Purple Sprouting Broccoli, shown at left. This broccoli is planted now, overwinters, and produces an abundant crop of broccoli sprouts in early spring, before spring-planted crops are ready to eat. Chinese Cabbage (or Nappa--shown top) is another brassica adapted to fall, but in this case, it makes a head very quickly for fall eating. It is the most juicy and mild-flavored brassica of all, perfect for salad. It's also easy to grow a big crop to preserve as kim-chee or sauerkraut. And the radishes of spring have an exotic fall-time cousin. Called Beauty Heart in China, this fall radish is red in the center and green or white outside, so we call it Watermelon Radish. Of course, kale is the quintessential winter vegetable, the hardiest of all. We like it in Portugese kale and sausage soup.

Thumb spinach bloomsdaleSpinach reaches its greatest size and juiciness in winter. The danger of bolting in the heat is gone, and the flavor remains mild. You can harvest leaves over and over rather than racing to get one harvest before hot weather.

Thumb beet chioggiaSpeaking of stew, let's think about winter comfort food for a minute. Other vegetables have the glamour, but roots deliver solid comfort-food sweetness and substance. The favorite vegetable with all the five-to 9-year-olds in our family is roasted winter vegetable medley, hands down. Oiled and roasted in the oven, those carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, onions, and beets get sweet and toasty, with a bit of crunch outside and a smooth starchy interior like a good french fry. The kids would never guess it's good for them! As far as they are concerned, the adults can have the tomatoes, if they can have roasted roots.

Thumb perfectionfennelYet another unique flavor of fall is fennel. This is the secret to authentic and savory pasta sauces. Fresh, it has the the crunch of celery, with a milder, sweeter, slightly licorice-scented flavor. Cooked, it is sweet and rich, perfect braised with meats or adding body to a stew.

Thumb chickory early trevisoAnother family of plants that prefer fall are the chicory/endive gang. Unlike lettuce (which likes to sprout in cool soil but is not cold-hardy as a mature plant), endives are hardy plants that make great winter salads. They are also substantial enough for cooking. Braised escarole and endive are Italian favorites. Raddichio and Frisee are perhaps the most familiar. If you are new to this family of greens, with its succulent mixture of sweet and bitter flavors, try Sugarloaf Chicory, which is like a big glossy romaine in shape and color.

Thumb lettuce hungarian smallEven though lettuce in the wild likes to grow in spring, gardeners over the past couple of centuries have managed to breed a few that are adapted to growing as fall and winter crops. Arctic King, Winter Density, and Hungarian Winter (shown) are some of these. They are both cold-hardy and mold-resistant, for growing in rainy or hoophouse conditions. 

Other options for winter salads are ultra-hardy Asian greens like Mizuna or Tatsoi, and native plants like Miner's Lettuce or Minutina. All four of these are hardier than lettuce with much the same mild flavor and leafy succulence. 

To see some of the special vegetables of fall, click here.

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