As summer heat hits its peak, invite thoughts of coolness by starting a fall and winter vegetable garden. Southern Oregon's weather stays mild enough through late fall to grow leafy greens and root vegetables. Late season gardening keeps fresh, delicious food close at hand and the colder weather means fewer aphids and other insect pests.
When buying plants or seeds, ask for fall and overwintering varieties hardy enough to take a little frost and snow. Locate your garden in an area that gets winter sun and where frost won't collect. Be sure the soil is well drained so winter rains won't pool up and rot your plants. If you're gardening in containers or in poorly drained soil, plan to cover the area during heavier rain and snow periods.
By Althea Godfrey
Jackson County Master Gardener Penny Moran says be sure to watch the variety of seed you choose for a fall garden. "It is necessary, because plants are bred to perform well in certain seasons."
Quality seed catalogs describe the conditions each plant needs to thrive. You will have better success if you follow those instructions carefully, says Moran. "By planting the seed too early, they will not thrive. Plant too late, and they will not thrive."
Seed producers are not colluding to cause your garden failure. It's all about specialization. Seed plants are cultivated and chosen when they do well under specific conditions of temperature, day length and other factors. When you choose the right seed and follow directions, you should have increased yields.
That's especially true about seasonal growth. In spring, the days are getting longer and warmer. Seeds must germinate in cool soil and plants must tolerate warmer days. In an autumn garden, seeds germinate in warm soil and tolerate increasingly shorter days and colder nights. So while carrots might do well in both these "shoulder seasons," plant 'Royal Chantenay,' 'Bolero,' or 'Minicore' in spring and 'Merida' in fall.
Kathleen Rieman, green goods buyer for the valley's Grange Co-op stores, says you can sow several seeds in the ground in August. Try arugula, beets, collard greens, kale, lettuce (leafy and heading), mustard greens, radicchio, radish, rutabaga, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips and onion bulbs. Several of these can be planted until mid-September. Some gardeners have success with enation-resistant peas.
Some plants need to go in as seedlings. Kim Matthews of Ashland Greenhouses suggests brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower in August. In September, plant broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage and celery starts. Also try lettuce and arugula starts if temperatures have cooled enough so these won't bolt.
Rieman reminds gardeners to nourish the soil before starting, using a balanced compost or a complete fertilizer. This is especially important now since any plants you've grown and harvested have taken up most of the nutrients.
If fall gardening is not on your list of things to do, don't leave your vegetable beds empty. Good soil is a living thing, and needs plants and water to stay healthy. To build soil fertility for the next year's spring and summer crops, plant a cover crop mix such as clover, rye, or legumes. Check local garden centers for pre-made mixes or blend your own.
Since late summer days can be scorching, protect seedlings and starts from the sun. Too much heat will cause plants to bolt or dry out and die. Mulch well to keep the soil moist. Set up a "tent" with shade cloth placed over a series of sticks. You can also plant seeds and starts under the shade of existing plants that you'll remove by late fall, such as tomatoes, beans (pole beans on a trellis or bush beans), summer squash and climbing cucumbers.
As frost approaches, cover plants to maintain heat and extend your growing season. A simple option is to lay floating row cover or, as the Jackson County Master Gardener's Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley suggests, bend fiberglass to make a tunnel over smaller areas. You can also improvise a greenhouse with stakes or pruned branches and plastic sheeting. These kinds of covers should be opened in the daytime to prevent overheating.
While it takes more forethought to extend your vegetable gardening through the fall and winter, its challenges pay off with each delicious bite. Feeling cool enough to garden, yet?