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Farm Your Yard: Early Fall in the Garden

Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

I love this time of year: the leaves on the trees are just beginning to change, the nights and mornings are cooler, and my summer vegetable garden is starting to slow down. Lots of non-gardeners think that September is the harvest month. That is true, but if you have an intensively planted garden like I do, May, June, July, and August are also the harvest months.

Because my garden’s production has slowed down a bit, I am focusing my attention on longer term projects for my garden. The slower pace of the fall garden is allowing for that, but also, by the time September rolls around, I am less concerned with maximized vegetable production, and am more interested in just some light garden piddling.

Firstly, I get a lot of questions right now about what vegetables can you still plant in your garden. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the outdoor gardening season is winding down here in mid-Missouri. The list of vegetables that you can still plant in your backyard garden and eat this fall has shrunk to just a few things: spinach, radishes, and maybe some quick growing greens like leaf lettuce or arugula.

Take note: because the daylight length is shortening plants grow slower in the fall, and might take a couple weeks longer to mature than is advertised on the seed packet. For example: you might have a package of mixed lettuce seed that says that they will be ready to eat in 50 days. If you plant those seeds today, they might take 65 days to mature, just because of the dropping temperatures and the shorter days. Or, there is the possibility that they might never mature if fall temperatures drop fast in October. This is a hard lesson for most novice gardeners: that if you want fresh garden vegetables to eat in the fall, you’ve really got to plant them in the summer

There is very little instant gratification in gardening, which is character building. So you always have to be thinking a couple months (or more) in advance. For example, back in June, I decided that in October I would really enjoy eating some cabbages from my garden. So, because cabbages take a long time to grow, I knew that I had to start them right then, in late June. An intensively planted vegetable garden is all about anticipation, organization, and planning. On the other hand, there is no harm in experimenting. If you haven’t planted anything in your garden for the fall but would like to, then go for it! If you want to try to plant leaf lettuce or some other quick growing vegetable, I say try it. It might work, but if it doesn’t you’ve learned a gardening lesson, a you will be a better gardener because of it.

The only two vegetables I have left to plant in my own personal garden are spinach and garlic. But, as I said earlier, I am always thinking ahead to the next gardening season, which is essentially next spring, since I don’t do a lot in my garden in the winter. Also: I am always trying to improve the soil in my garden so that my vegetables are productive and abundant without me having to fertilize so much. Therefore, right now I am doing something scandalous: I am pulling out much of my summer vegetable plants and planting what are known as cover crops. Yes, the tomato plants still have green tomatoes on them, but the plants are slowing down to a crawl, and I have limited space in my garden, so I want to act. To me, the few pounds of tomatoes that I will get if I keep the plants in the ground are less important than grabbing at the opportunity to grow the fertilizer for next year’s garden.

So, Last week I trotted out to my garden, ripped out my tomato plants, collected the green tomatoes- because, you know, fried green tomatoes- and planted rye and hairy vetch. These two plants are what we call cover crops. They are planted with the sole purpose of improving the soil. They will grow in the garden over the winter time, thereby covering and protecting the soil, and I will till them into my garden next spring. What began as a small handful of seeds will have turned into a dense mat of grass and legumes that will be eaten by the microbes in the soil and turned into nutrition for the winter squash I will plant there next year. Incorporating cover crops into your vegetable garden can be tough because they take up space and your inclination is to devote all space to plants that produce food. But these cover crops will help produce the food in your garden next year, so I try to make room for them where I can.

Another task that is keeping me busy in the garden right now is planting perennial flowers. Mild fall weather offers gardeners a great opportunity to plant plants that are complimentary to your vegetable garden. Much like cover crops, native and non native flowers provide lots of benefits to your vegetable garden. Flowers lure pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden: some of these bugs that will ensure that your tomato and cucumber flowers will actually turn into tomatoes and cucumbers, or will make sure that your aphid population doesn’t spin out of control. In a nutshell the more flowers you can plant in your garden, the more bugs you will attract, and the better off your garden will be. Planting perennial flower in the fall helps them settle into their new home over the winter season, so that when they explode with growth next spring, their roots will have already acclimated to their new place in the world.

Take some time this September to enjoy the changing of the season. While you are outside watching the monarchs flutter by, take a moment to get a few perennial flowers or cover crops tucked into your garden. Take a moment to plant the final fall vegetables. Or just take a moment to reflect on the closing of another garden season, and how wonderful it has been.

If you are interested in learning more about CCUA, then I have a great invitation for you. Come out to our annual end of the season party- the Harvest Hootenanny on October 7 from 3-8 to enjoy a Missouri grown meal, music, and camaraderie. Visit our website www.columbliaurbanag.org for directions and details.

As always, happy gardening.

Trevor serves as KBIA’s weekday morning host for classical music. He has been involved with local radio since 1990, when he began volunteering as a music and news programmer at KOPN, Columbia's community radio station. Before joining KBIA, Trevor studied social work at Mizzou and earned a masters degree in geography at the University of Alabama. He has worked in community development and in urban and bicycle/pedestrian planning, and recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his wife, Lisa Groshong. An avid bicycle commuter and jazz fan, Trevor has cycled as far as Colorado and pawed through record bins in three continents.
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