Fall is about to sneak up on us. The days are already growing shorter evidenced by an earlier more brilliant sunset as we coast into autumn. The nights will gradually become cooler almost without us noticing and, suddenly, one September night we might feel a chill in the air and grab a light cotton blanket out of our closet. It’s strange how the seasons turn right before our eyes and yet we don’t often notice the subtleties of change until it is imminent.
We enjoy our summer fruits and vegetables well into September but then lament as they wither on the vine and give into their life span. I can’t tell you how many times I have mourned the loss of the summer fruits of my garden and in the same breath cursed myself for not planning better, or rather planting better. So many seasons I have not planted a fall garden and missed one of the best harvests of all. So, this August, before time runs out, I plan to sow a few more seeds. Not only does it ease the pain of watching my summer garden fade away, it extends the joy of the growing season.
As fall arrives, protect tender summer crops that show promise of a long life by covering them on chilly nights. This will lengthen their season. If you plan ahead and work the numbers, summer crops that have a short maturity can be planted in August and picked before the first frost, such as green beans. Green beans reach maturity in an average of 55 to 60 days (depending on the variety). Plant a row in mid August and enjoy them in mid October. The average first frost for the Eastern Shore is October 30, according to the Farmers Almanac.
There are so many different great cool weather vegetables to plant in August for an October and November harvest. To name a few: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, collards, turnips, beets, peas and carrots. Some of these plants will tolerate a light frost such as brussels sprouts, kale, carrots and collards and, consequently, their flavor often improves after a frost. Not sure when to plant? Seed packets will give you number of days to maturity. Check online for optimal planting times. Try veggieharvest.com and garden.org.
A salad lover? Cold frames are another way to extend the season. A cold frame is a great way to grow lettuce throughout the fall. Check out www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/this-diy-cold-frame-keeps-frost-at-bay to learn how to build a cold frame. Imagine eating a fresh homegrown lettuce salad with Thanksgiving dinner. Think beyond garden variety romaine and try arugula or red oak for some color.
Stay active in the garden during the fall months and reap the rewards of super healthy foods. In a recent publication by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a basic guide to healthy food was released and the vegetable “Superstars” were nearly all fall crops. Kale, spinach, collard greens, swiss chard and turnip greens all boasted very high scores of Vitamin K, Lutein, Vitamin C, Potassium and Fiber. Not far behind in excellent nutrition scores were pumpkin, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, radicchio, carrots and broccoli rabe. Almost all of these vegetables are either picked well into fall or are associated with cozy fall meals.
One of my favorite fall vegetables is butternut squash. I grow it in the summer and it stores well into late fall and I always crave it when the first cold snap hits. I roast it and then cube it and sprinkle it with fresh rosemary, sea salt and butter. If my vegan friend is visiting I use olive oil. Last year I decided to get out of my comfort zone and plant collards. I have never grown them before and boy were they hardy. We had several meals out of the one row I planted. They wintered over so that in the spring we had two more dinners complimented by collards. When I finally decided to till my garden this spring I was greeted by my collards, still there, standing tall and they had sprouted the most beautiful delicate pale yellow flowers. The collard flowers were so delightful looking, I cut them and put them in a vase.
Even if you are not a gardener, you can still enjoy fall crops from a local farm stand or the grocery store. Just as autumn sneaks up on us and we don’t notice, how many times do you go to the grocery store and fail to notice the hearty fall vegetables? Do you find yourself buying the same vegetables over and over? How many times have you bypassed the kale or turnips in favor of more popular choices? Open your eyes to fall squashes and beets. If you haven’t tried broccoli rabe, give it a chance. Sometimes when you venture from your comfort zone, you discover something delicious and I can’t think of any better time than fall to stretch your taste buds.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with two severe nut allergies and a fish/shellfish allergy. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.