Planting in the fall

What is harvest time for most veggie crops is planting time for a few, and none is more timely right now than garlic. With Halloween and its horde of vampires just around the corner, garlic should be on everyone’s mind (not to mention breath). But what about next Halloween? Hmmm? Will you be suitably armed with this essential shield?

If you follow the news, you’ve doubtless observed that one rarely hears of garlic farmers found lifeless with twin punctures in their necks, and there’s a good, scientific reason for this. Garlic farmers simply smell too good to interest vampires — and in the fall, they’re much too busy planting next year’s crop to succumb to love offerings from caped denizens of the night. Yes, fall is the best time to plant garlic.

Garlic needs six to 10 months to mature, and while it can be planted in the spring, fall planting delivers the biggest, most succulent heads. Ideally, cloves are planted four to six weeks before the last frost date, which gives the plants time to sprout and gather some energy before shutting down for the winter. That way, they’re ready to leap to life as soon as winter loses its grip, and by late summer, they’ll develop big, juicy bulbs.

Garlic wants rich, deep, well-drained, loamy soil (don’t we all?), and a healthy dose of compost dug into the bed before planting, plus side-dressing (adding compost around the plants) when growth takes off about a month later, is sure to make the little bulblets smile. That said, however, garlic’s pH range allows the plant to grow essentially anywhere common plants can survive. The best source for seed stock is a local grower who’s been successful over several years, but any garlic bulb will grow, and you might get lucky even with a clump from a supermarket. Separate the head into cloves, and plant them pointy end up,1-2 inches deep, and 3-6 inches apart. While garlic likes rich soil, it is easily spoiled, so lay off the fertilizer and the water during spring and summer, unless a drought from hell seizes your piece of earth. A year from now, you’ll be hailed as that visionary with garlic braids draped on the front porch — and nary a vampire in sight.

In the near term, of course, you want something green to eat when the rest of your garden has melted following the first lick of cold weather. That means kale, which thumbs its nose at frost and even light freezes. In fact, kale tastes better after cold begins to snap. It’s an excellent source of iron, too — just the thing for stiffening spines to face the dark nights ahead. And unlike the summertime Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, turnips et al.), kale doesn’t have to contend with aphids, loopers, maggots, flea beetles, harlequin bugs, cabbageworms, bean beetles, mites, thrips, weevils and all the other warm-weather villains that turn cabbage into coleslaw before you even pick it.

It’s too late to plant kale from seed with any great hope of success (100 days before the first frost is a reliable marker), but you can still set out seedlings if you have some on hand or can find them at the nursery. At this point, 3- to 4-week-old seedlings will deliver a good crop from the end of October through Christmas (depending on your local frost/freeze/deep-freeze/arctic-blast date — a very local matter in these mountains).

Kale also takes less space than other Brassicas: It will happily mature if you allow 18 inches between plants. And if you have a small garden, you can set them out 10 inches apart to begin with and thin them out later by eating all the other plants.

When harvesting, pick leaves from the middle — but leave the central stalk alone. The large, outer, basal leaves will continue to feed it, and you can harvest up the stalk as it reaches for the sky. In this climate, it’s possible to harvest kale through much of the winter.

Brussels sprouts, a close relative, are another option for early September planting. The seedlings want a little more space than kale and a good bit more food; side-dress with compost monthly until there’s a serious frost. As with kale, you may be able to harvest through much of the winter, and some gardeners manage to keep brussels sprouts going until hot weather and bugs do their inevitable damage the following summer. It’s not too late to put in broccoli seedlings either, though the harvest will be shorter than for brussels sprouts and kale.

By the way, if you have trouble with club root, a common Brassica malady, use a three-year rotation on soil within 10 feet of a previous planting. (Some experts go so far as to recommend a seven-year delay before replanting.) Either way, this can be a serious impediment in a small garden; adding lime to raise the soil pH can help ward off such soil-borne diseases. But unless you’re a rigorous composter (that is, you add plenty of nitrogen and turn your compost frequently to crank up the heat to pasteurization temperature), it may be safest not to toss your Brassicas on the compost pile (particularly the roots).

If you drop everything the minute you read this — and if your garden is somewhat uphill — you still have time to put in a fall crop of peas. Choose a variety such as Frosty or Little Marvel that matures quickly. Snow peas are a good choice, too. You don’t need to worry about digging in a lot of compost, because peas are light feeders, and as a legume, they actually add nitrogen to the soil.

As soon as your peas are plump, pick them daily to encourage flowering. The plants will tolerate a light frost, but because pollination is required, production will drop off after the pollinators crash with the coming of winter. Slugs, which adore pea seedlings, aren’t generally a problem in the fall, though this year has been a wet one — so the usual spring precautions might apply to your plot. Rake back any mulch, and remove obvious slug shelters such as boards and flat rocks from the area, at least until the peas start climbing your strings or trellis.

So don’t despair: The gardening season isn’t over yet. You can plant garlic, kale and peas while you’re setting out your mums. The bugs are making their final curtain call, and by all indications, the vampires are still at bay.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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