One of the advantages of gardening 2,500 feet up in the Southern Appalachians is that this unique combination of elevation and latitude supports three growing seasons. As in the Pacific Northwest, there can be a second harvest of spring crops during this third season of cooling temperatures and shrinking light. Here in my eco-niche, Season Three is long and leisurely, lasting from mid-August until Thanksgiving. It glows with brilliant, invigorating equinox energies.
As my eco-niche tilts farther away from the sun, my gardener/granddaughter, Ivy Rose, swears she can actually sense nature’s energies slowing down — which, for this gardener at least, is a welcome relief. The spring/summer frenzy of planting, tending and harvesting crops shifts to the tranquility of enriching soil and creating compost — the most organic part of organic gardening.
I try to mimic nature’s timetable for soil renewal in a temperate climate. During the third season, vegetative energies in field and forest return to the soil via a sheet compost of organic matter — primarily leaves and other dead plant parts. Fueled by sun and water, this gives the soil the power to turn nature oxygen-green again the following spring and to keep it that way for half a year. That blanket of dead vegetation is also a mulch,which protects the soil from erosion during the long, bare winter while feeding the worms.
But despite my altered focus (and the severe limits the rapidly diminishing light in my north/south-running cove imposes on the scope of a fall garden), I keenly enjoy my small, final harvests of roots and leaves — the last tastes of really locally grown vegetables and herbs until spring.
Most of my third-season crops are the same roots and leaves I plant in spring, when they mature as the weather and soil heat up and the light grows stronger. I think most of these crops taste crisper and sweeter when brought to harvest as the air and soil cool, and each day is darker than the last.The only summer crop I plant for a fall harvest is a third batch of bush beans, which I sow in July and harvest starting in September, until they’re nipped by frost. My autumn leaf crops are lettuces, arugula, kale, dill, chives and basil.
I try to plant kale before the beginning of August so that by the end of September, when the weather turns distinctly chillier, I can start harvesting these nutritious greens to pump up my stir-fries (not to mention my immune system) with vitamin C, iron and calcium. Shielded by floating row cover, much of the crop will make it through the winter to mature next spring.
Arugula stores poorly and is very expensive; I eat it only when it comes from my garden. My fall-grown arugula is always tastier and more robust than my spring crop, and if I throw some row cover over it to protect it from freezes, I can harvest it from mid-September right on through to Thanksgiving. Ivy Rose and I each grow a patch. Her arugula (or roquette, the name she prefers) rises like a phoenix from the dead plants in the original, intensively sown spring bed, which I let go to seed — partly for the sheer joy of its beautiful flowers and partly to generate another crop.
In late August, Ivy Rose keeps watch, and when the seeds are ready to drop, she folds, drapes and flattens the scraggly, dry, dead plants, their roots still anchored in the soil, over one another. On top of this mulch, she throws a shallow layer of good soil or compost and a light layer of hay. We cooperate on keeping everything moist until the seeds germinate (this summer, it took only a week). And if nature doesn’t water the seedlings daily, we do — to stimulate the growth of these spicy, watercresslike greens, which grow wild in Italy. In three weeks, I can start harvesting enough thinnings to spark up salads. Arugula thrives in a nitrogen-rich soil; the healthiest crops of it I ever grew were planted in a spot where I’d piled horse manure for many years.
To divide chive plants in early September, I trim a clump close to the ground with scissors, then saw off hunks of the clump with a serrated knife and moved them elsewhere in the garden, or put them in pretty pots as gifts to friends with September birthdays. Folks who don’t have gardens can keep them going on a sunny windowsill.
I always plant a late basil crop so I can enjoy pesto right up until first frost. As for lettuces, I continue sowing small patches of several varieties, potager style — as I have since spring — about every three weeks. This fall, it’s Red Sails, Buttercrunch, Simpson and my all-time favorite: Tango. I spice up these leaves with arugula, chopped chives and French Breakfast radishes for marvelous third-season salads.
I feel about French Breakfast radishes the same way I do about Tango lettuce: They’re in a class by themselves. Elongated rather than round, they have plenty of crunch and a zappy, earthy flavor. Child horticultural historian Ivy Rose reports that the name French Breakfast stems from their being a favorite midmorning snack of French farmers,who ate them with fresh-baked French bread, cut into thick slices and spread with homemade butter.
The only other third-season root crops I bother with (other than garlic at Thanksgiving) are a late planting of carrots (in mid-July) and onions. I buy a pound of onion sets for a buck as soon as they’re available at the garden center and stick the small bulbs wherever there’s space and some sun, knowing I can count on lots of scallions before Thanksgiving. When cold weather takes hold, I pile a little hay around the many onions left, and they winter over to become the first crop I harvest in late March. Like my other third-season crops,they need minimal attention.
My fall garden is manageable and comfortable as the air cools; mosquitoes disappear, and cicada rhythms amp up. It’s also every bit as beautiful as in spring and summer. Third-season weeds — goldenrod, purple ironweed, lavender asters and the mauve plumes of joe-pye weed join my late-planted zinnias, cleome and crimson nasturtiums in a last surge of color. All through September, chlorophyll slowly fades from the leaves until, in October, the poplars and maples near the garden blaze red and gold. Chrysanthemums flash out, and pineapple sages explode into scarlet, frost-resistant fireworks that light up the garden for weeks.
But my granddaughter’s most anticipated third-season event is the re-emergence of the worms. After a summer spent in cool, deep burrows, they start nosing around in the topsoil again, hungry for fallen leaves and rotting plant parts. To season the feast and to attract these little “fertilizer factories,” Ivy Rose sprinkles the raised beds with organic cornmeal. Once established in a bed, worms enrich it with their castings — a powerful, slow-release organic fertilizer.
“Nature’s Own,” says Ivy Rose.
[Victoria Maddux tends her garden in a mountain cove near Asheville.]