Plan for Fall Harvests

I’m not a hot weather lover. Sure, I want some summer days in the 80s to help the tomatoes and squash ripen. But while those veggies are reveling in the hot sun in July and August, I’m out in the garden, weeding and watering, and thinking wistfully of those nice, cool fall days ahead. I think the autumn months are the pleasantest time of the year to be outside, so I always look forward to the fall gardening season. Lots of delicious crops are suitable for a late harvest, even in areas like Vermont with a short growing season. Fall crops are also a great choice for school gardens, as they can be harvested (and in some cases planted) after students have returned from their summer break.

Late season gardening does take a little advance planning, however. For many of the crops to be ready to pick in early to mid-fall (or even late fall and winter, depending on your climate), they’ll need to be planted in mid to late summer in order to have time to mature before the weather turns too cold.

One of my favorite veggies for fall eating is kale. In order to have an ample harvest of both baby greens for salads and full-size leaves for soups and sautés, I plant some seeds in cell packs in mid to late July. When the seedlings are several inches tall, I set them out in the garden, covering the bed with lightweight row cover fabric stretched over hoops. Covering plants is an easy way to keep away pests like flea beetles and caterpillars, although kale seems to be less enticing to these critters than many other cabbage family members. I’ll make another sowing of kale a few weeks later, in mid-August. Then toward the end of the month and again in mid-September, I’ll sow seeds directly in the ground, to be harvested as “baby” leaves. If I’m really organized, I’ll even sow some seeds inside a cold frame in late September. This way, I’ll have a good chance of being able to serve home-grown kale at Thanksgiving dinner – maybe even Christmas!

Many other greens make great fall crops. Spinach delights in cooler temperatures and isn’t tempted to bolt (flower and go to seed) in the shortening days of fall. Swiss chard, bok choy, Asian greens like mizuna and tat soi, arugula, and mache are all great candidates for late season harvests. Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips are other possibilities, along with that weird and wonderful member of the cabbage family called kohlrabi.  Cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel’s sprouts can all be grown for fall harvest, but because they take a relatively long time to reach maturity, in many parts of the country at this point they would need to be set out as started plants purchased from a garden store.

So how do you know when to start these various plants so they’ll be ready for harvest in the fall? You just need to do a little arithmetic. First, find out the average date of the first hard fall frost in your area (most of the crops suggested tolerate temperatures at least down to 28°F). Next, look for the days to maturity listed on the seed packet. Take this number and add in 10-14 days as a fall factor, which takes into account the slower growth that happens as a result of the shorter, cooler days of fall. Add to this the number of days of the harvest period. Then count back this number of days from the frost date and —ta-da!—you have your planting date.

Actually, what this really gives you is a good “ball park” idea of when to plant. Because the weather and actual frost date varies from season to season, starting some seeds earlier and some seeds later than the calculated planting date will give you the greatest likelihood of a long and abundant harvest season. And if you plan to give plants protection, in a cold frame for example, you can often add another 2-4 weeks to you growing season.  Keep in mind that cold tolerance can also vary within a particular crop, depending on the variety you choose. For example, choosing lettuce varieties bred for fall harvests will set the stage for late season success.

Enjoy the fun —and wonderful weather—that fall gardening affords. A little planning now will let you and your students enjoy the bounty of a school garden for months to come!

Our Family Butterfly Garden

A couple of years ago my kids’ Grammy brought us a milkweed plant she’d found at a nursery with a monarch chrysalis attached. Although the monarch butterflies sip nectar from a variety of flowers, their caterpillar stage feeds exclusively on milkweed plants. After hatching from an egg and feeding for a couple of weeks, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis to undergo metamorphosis. After an additional 10 to 14 days, the chrysalis cracks open, allowing the adult butterfly to emerge.

Not wanting to miss our butterfly’s debut (since we had no clue how long it had been in its chrysalis), we brought the plant into the house and set it on a sunny windowsill inside a mesh insect cage. Despite our careful monitoring, we were out running errands when the butterfly emerged, but after placing it outside, we did get to watch it warm up its wings before flying away. This little six-inch plant kicked off our family’s interest in butterfly gardening.

Ready for more and knowing that our milkweed would need additional space to grow, we decided to fill our mobile container garden with pollinator plants. Along with the milkweed we planted black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia), coreopsis, morning glories and salvia, but the milkweed quickly dominated the space. That first spring our garden had the most amazing population of monarch caterpillars! We even got to watch one of the caterpillars slip into it chrysalis, which happens so much quicker than I expected. By the time I thought to record it on my camera, it was almost done. (Check out this You Tube Video from Jeff Ormiston, Naturalist at Fox Island County Park to see the process from egg to butterfly – very cool!)

The new garden seemed to be a hit, and we eagerly awaited the return of monarchs in the fall as they stopped over on their seasonal migration to Mexico for the winter months. Much to our delight, in the fall we discovered leaves covered in little eggs and soon after, little caterpillars...and then they started disappearing! Through a quick Internet search, I discovered that ants, spiders and wasps, all of which are well represented in our garden, prey on Monarch caterpillars.

To keep the milkweed from wilting, we placed it in a piece of wet floral foam.

Trying to find a quick solution, we collected the remaining two caterpillars and placed them in a butterfly observation cage inside. Getting to watch them up close as they grew was quite an experience. It was amazing to see how many leaves we needed to harvest to keep them fed, and even more incredible how much poop they produced (just wow- they are pooping machines). We ended up with two chrysalises last fall, but unfortunately neither hatched. They both turned into a gooey black mess, victims of some kind of disease.

The following spring our monarch caterpillars were again falling prey in large numbers (in fact we never could find any caterpillars just small holes eaten out of leaves where we had seen eggs), so we went back to the butterfly observation cage. We put five eggs in our cage and from those, we ended up with four caterpillars. Despite watching them like hawks and checking the cage before we left each day and as soon as we came back, all four of them made their chrysalises while we were out of the house—those stinkers! From our four caterpillars, we ended up having two monarch butterflies hatch and fly away.

One of this year's butterflies emerging from its chyrsalis.

When I first embarked on this garden with the kids, I can honestly say I was not expecting quite as many challenges (like heading outside at 10 PM with a flashlight looking for milkweed leaves to harvest for the starving caterpillars). I also did not realize that the expected survival rate in the natural environment from egg to mature adult hovers between 2 to 5%. But we are not ready to give up! We are starting seeds of some native pollinator-attracting plants this summer, including native milkweed. We also plan to install an in-ground pollinator garden with the hope that a larger, more diverse habitat will provide more natural checks and balances against predators and disease. I promise to report back on our new garden this fall.

Despite our struggles, I would highly recommend a home butterfly garden if you have young kids. Not only has it been a learning experience for us all, it has also been lots of fun. For more information check out our KidsGardening article Grow Milkweed to Help Monarch Butterflies and the North American Butterfly Association’s Monarch Page.






Meet the Blogger – Beth Saunders

community gardening with kids

I’m so thrilled to have joined the KidsGardening team and to be able to share my experiences of community gardening with kids on the Growing Ideas blog. I’ve been a community gardener for six years now, but before that I had relatively little garden experience. My mom kept a vegetable garden growing up, but I was always scared to go to that part of the property because I once saw my dad removing a (live) snake on the end a shovel. That was enough to keep me on the other side of the yard.

kid in a garden
Author, as a child, with a scowl that would scare a snake.

I live in Burlington, VT, with my young family. We have a good-sized yard for city living, but we also have lots of shade and northern exposure. With big plans for growing our own food after our move to Vermont from Washington, DC, we turned to community gardening. It’s been wonderful to meet new people, glean some knowledge off of the master gardeners, and have lots of fresh vegetables and even a few fruits throughout the summer.

Our plot can best be described as utilitarian. Some of the plots in our garden are absolutely gorgeous, with handmade trellises of gathered driftwood, gorgeous earth with not a weed to be seen, artfully arranged crops that almost look like a labyrinth garden. Mine is covered with straw mulch. Weeds peek out on the edges. My tomato cages are a little rusty and very crooked. Kid-planted seeds grow in odd clumps. It is not, to my daughter’s dismay, fancy. But we love it and it suits us perfectly.

As my little ones are still pretty little (5 and 2), they come along to the garden quite a bit. I’ll be using my blog space to share my experiences and tips growing food and flowers in a communal space with little ones. Spoiler alert: “that’s not ours!” comes up quite a bit.

You don’t have to leave your kids at home if you grow in a community garden. Grab the sprinkle can, throw the kids in the wagon, and the whole family can enjoy growing food with your neighbors.

Learning Life Skills in the Garden … and on a Food Truck

school food truck

Three weeks ago, the Fork in the Road food truck kicked off it’s fourth season, joining the ranks of food vendors who cruise the streets of Burlington, VT, during the summer months. The distinctive checkered pick-up truck and brightly painted trailer frequents many of the usual hotspots downtown and, like many food trucks, serves up delicious locally sourced foods. But Fork in the Road isn’t your average food truck—it’s staffed by high school students.

Four years ago, the Burlington School Food Project, a combined food service and farm to school program within the Burlington School District, launched Fork in the Road as a student-run food truck and culinary job training program. Since then, the food truck has employed eight or so Burlington High School students each summer—youth must submit a written application and teacher references and be interviewed to earn a spot on the truck.

food truck sandwiches
Ashish making pulled pork sandwiches in the food truck.

Student employees earn wages while processing fresh ingredients (from local farms and our own school gardens), preparing complex dishes (everything from samosas to pesto pulled pork sandwiches), working weekly vending and catering events, and maintaining school gardens throughout the district. Youth also attend special team days, which include food safety trainings, resume writing workshops, mock interviews, and visits to local businesses where they learn the ins and outs of the service industry.

Fork in the Road is far more than a typical summer job; at it’s heart it’s a mentorship program.

For many of our youth, working on the food truck is a time where they not only gain concrete job experience, but valuable life skills and confidence in themselves, all while learning more about their community. Our aim is not only to provide students with something to do during the summer, but to give them the skills, confidence, and ability to find jobs in our community, to pursue higher education if they so choose, and to transition out of high school and into their adult lives.

food truck tacos

And while the food truck may wrap up it’s season come the start of the school year, our Fork in the Road alumni often continue to participate in Burlington School Food Project organized activities, such as our Food Fighters afterschool program (this past year we spent many of our weekly meetings preparing meals at our local food shelf) or our Jr. Iron Chef team.

To find out even more about our programming and vending events, check out the Burlington School Food Project’s website or our Fork in the Road Facebook page. We’d love to see you if you happen to be passing through Burlington, VT, this summer!