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Thinking ahead to the fall potager

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07/03/2002
Thinking ahead to the fall potager

Yes, I know, summer is just hitting its stride. Who wants to think about autumn already? Nevertheless, now's the time to start preparing for the garden in autumn which, for a number of reasons, is one of the most satisfying times in the potager.

Somehow, new vegetables coming up in the garden in the fall seems like wonderful insurance against the coming cold. Suddenly, after the surfeit of summer, every sprout seems precious. And the thought of harvesting right up until Christmas--or even all the way through the winter in warmer zones--is a cozy one.

With a fall potager, you can be feasting on tender baby vegetables instead of the overgrown, gnarly leftovers of summer. Slender carrots, buttery baby turnips, and smooth beets will be yours for the pulling.

And all those greens and salad plants that bolt so quickly in the summer heat? Fall is their hour of glory. Spinach rosettes just keep getting bigger and lusher, while lettuce stays sweet, as the shorter daylength and cooler temperatures inhibit their desire to go to seed.

There are really two classes of plantings for the fall potager. The first is midsummer (meaning now) replantings of frost-tender vegetables with a relatively quick maturity time. Are your summer squashes already showing signs of fatigue, their vines penetrated by borers and their flowers mangled by cucumber beetles? Pull up and destroy them (to get rid of pest eggs on the leaves) and start over, preferably in a different spot. Fork in some rotted manure, and plant summer crooknecks, zucchini, pattypans and the like now. You'll be harvesting delicious new squash from August until frost. Similarly, make new plantings of bush beans, choosing varieties with a quick maturity.

The second type of planting to prepare for is that of cold-tolerant vegetables. These are truly a seasonal delight, and together with ripe winter squashes, form for me the heart of autumn and winter cooking. All of the enormous brassica (cabbage, broccoli, et al) are in this group. In my own garden, I reserve fall for planting a wide variety of oriental greens, such as the succulent mei qing choi, the stunning "black cabbage" with its flat rosette of spoon-shaped leaves, and even classics like Napa, which tolerate June heat poorly. More traditional members of this group, such as broccoli, should be started from seed now, and set out as soon as they have 4 true leaves. You'll be harvesting fresh, tight heads right into December in most parts of the country.

Fall rivals early spring for salad plant success. While spring plantings bolt all too quickly in the long hot June days, fall plantings stay succulent. Unusual greens, such as arugula, miner's lettuce or claytonia, and m”che, are extremely frost tolerant. Many lettuces are as well--especially those strains selected especially for fall plantings, such as 'Winter Density'. All members of the chicory family are very hardy. And nothing beats serving up big bowls of baby greens every night right up until Christmas.

The successful fall potager does take a bit of planning--and a few tricks. The most important thing to remember is that all vegetables will grow more slowly in the fall, as the daylength shortens dramatically. This means that you should increase the standard "days to maturity" by at least 30 to 40%. Carrots especially need to be planted by the first or second week in August in Zones 5 and north.

The biggest trick is getting your summer-planted seeds to germinate. For squash and beans, there's no problem. The heat of summer soil helps them sprout quickly. But lettuces, carrots, and especially spinach can refuse to germinate at all in hot summer soil. To induce them to sprout, I cover beds of salad greens and carrots with burlap. This provides shade, allows moisture to penetrate, and lets the tiny seedlings peep through so you know when it's time to remove the cover.

Spinach needs more forceful treatment. Wet several thicknesses of paper towel and dump your seed onto it. Fold up the toweling and then wrap it securely in foil. Stash in the refrigerator for a week or two, or even longer. The seeds will germinate, and you'll then need to plant the little sprouts. Be sure to keep them watered after planting, as they will quickly succumb in dry soil.

Finally, the glorious onion family. Now is the time to line out leek transplants (see photo above) for a healthy crop to draw from all through winter. French gardeners know how to grow leeks better than anyone in the world. At least, that's my conclusion judging from the enormous amounts of leeks in every garden and market. They set out their leek plants in a shallow trench. That way, the leeks can be handily blanched by simply pulling soil in toward them from the sides of the trench as they grow. This is much easier than trying to hill soil around surface-planted leeks, and also makes for a more winter-durable planting.

Fall is also the time to plant garlic and shallots for next summer. If you don't have any left from your current garden, just buy some (of a type you like) at the grocery. Divide garlic into cloves before planting. And voilà! You see that the serious potager is a year-round occupation!

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Large willow apple basket
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'Paris' garden fork

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