When fall arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, vegetable gardens in most parts of the country begin winding down. But there is still plenty to keep gardeners busy as the seasons change. Here are some things you and your young gardeners can do to get the most from your vegetable garden, even as the growing season draws to a close.
- Plant Garlic Plant garlic for harvest next summer a week or two after the first killing frost up until about six weeks before the ground freezes. Separate a bulb into individual cloves just before planting, and place each clove with the pointed end up, 2-4 inches deep if you are north of zone 7, 1-2 inches deep in southern gardens, and 4-6 inches apart within the row. In the north, once the ground freezes in late fall, mulch the bed with straw, weed-free hay, shredded leaves, or pine needles spread 4-6 inches deep.
- Let Frost Sweeten Fall Crops Kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards all taste sweetest if you wait until after light frost to harvest. But if a sudden early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants. Leaves of collards and kale are ready for picking as soon as they reach usable size. Sprouts are ready when they are about an inch in diameter. Pick off and compost yellowing lower leaves.
- Harvest Green Tomatoes Once the nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it's best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes (those that have turned light green to white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors once the weather is this cool. Clip tomatoes from the vine with a short piece of stem attached. Red tomatoes well on their way to ripening can tolerate cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.
- Cover Greens for Extended Harvest Cover beds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens with floating row covers to extend your harvest season. The row covers will provide a few degrees of frost protection, enough to often give you several weeks or more of garden-fresh produce compared to uncovered plants.
- Pinch Brussels Sprouts To get the sprouts to ripen together, pinch off the top couple of inches of your Brussels sprouts plants to direct their energy into the sprouts that are already developing along the stem. Unpruned plants will continue to produce new sprouts until the weather is quite cool, though they may be smaller. Clip off any lower leaves that have yellowed, and keep plants watered if fall weather is dry. Sprouts harvested after the first frost will be sweetest. Harvest from the bottom up when the sprouts are between 3/4- 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
- Plan for an Extra Early Spinach Harvest Try planting some spinach seeds about 4-6 weeks before average date of the first hard fall frost in your area. This will give you plants about the size of a tea cup, the best size for overwintering. In areas with good snow cover, plants often overwinter without additional protection. But covering plants with winter-weight row cover fabric after cold weather hits provides extra insurance. The baby plants will take off growing in early spring (be sure to remove any covering), and you'll be picking homegrown spinach in short order. Look for hardy varieties like 'Winter Bloomsdale' to plant for overwintering.