Fall is coming.
I know it is hard to believe, but July is the time we plan for fall crops and get the seeds ordered. The fall crop actually gets planted by mid-August. We often try to be the first to market with several crops, so we may even push the common wisdom and try to plant some of our fall crops by early August. We have a few gardens with good afternoon shade and irrigation that work pretty well for this. Our planting strategy is to first plant the fields that are closer to the house and have irrigation. This is essential because it is so hot here, these fall crops will not germinate and grow without adequate water. We will plant our second planting of fall crops in the fields that are farther away. Seed selection is tricky for fall plantings because the crops planted in late summer need to be very heat tolerant, and the crops planted later in the Fall need to be very cold tolerant. Read and choose varieties carefully if you are a grower. Also be careful to choose varieties resistant to the insects and diseases you think you will encounter during the growing season you are targeting.
I am perusing the seed catalogues now. I love this part of my job. I want to plant everything! The only problem is that ordering seeds takes a pretty big hit out of our monthly budget each July and January. We make it work in January because we have spring CSA sign ups during that time, which brings in income with the sign up fee. There is no fee for our existing spring CSA members to rejoin for the winter, so no sign up fee money is coming in. Not only is July too early for most members to start thinking about a winter CSA, but they are still trying to figure out what to do with all the summer eggplant they are getting! My favorite seed choices for fall include brussel sprouts, mixed lettuce, mixed kale varieties, colorful root vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, and cool season herbs. Each one has its own strategy behind which variety to choose.
Lettuce: Choose a heat tolerant variety for early planting then shift to a cool season variety for later plantings that will be harvested in the winter. Plant the warm season varieties in places with afternoon shade and irrigation. Plant the cool season varieties in full sun and in fields farther away.
Kale: The most heat tolerant varieties I have found are Lacinado and Siberian kale. These go in first. Then I plant Red Russian for later season harvests, because it tolerates cold much better. I also specifically look for something colorful and different. I might do Redbor this year, or even a Portuguese kale.
Broccoli and Cauliflower: As with all winter crops, I buy heat tolerant varieties and cold tolerant varieties for successive plantings. For broccoli and cauliflower I also look for good disease resistance as well as pretty colors. The seeds for colorful broccoli are extremely expensive, but these crops do demand a slight premium at the market. The key is to not waste any of the seeds. This means I need to germinate them in a seedbed, then transplant the seeds into the field. If I direct seed them into the field with my seeder, too many get wasted. It has to be done by hand. I used to contract with a local greenhouse grower to grow out my seeds into transplants. That got too expensive and I couldn’t justify it based on the price I can get for the crop.
Brussel Sprouts: These are a challenge because the time from when the plants emerge to when they can be harvested is very long. They also are not very heat tolerant, so they cannot be planted too early. This means that if they are planted in early September when it finally cools off a little bit, they may not have time to mature before it gets too cold. We use two strategies. The first is to find varieties that have some heat tolerance and the shortest possible days to harvest. The shortest I have found is 90 days. Plant them early, and be ready to cover them with frost protection if you have to. The second strategy is to find very cold tolerant varieties with a long days-to-harvest and try to overwinter them for an early spring harvest. I’m going to do some of both this year. Last year it didn’t work because it got so cold that everything froze out. This year might just be a little warmer. Everyone loves Brussel sprouts. It is worth the extra work and a bit of risk.
Root Vegetables: I choose sweet turnips, colorful beets, colorful carrots, and different types of radishes. I don’t hesitate to direct seed these crops with close spacing, because I can remove some of the crop as baby root vegetables, and allow the rest of the crop to mature to full size. If is funny, but root vegetables sell well as babies, but it is much harder to sell full sized beets or turnips.
Herbs: Great winter herbs include several types of parsley, dill, cilantro, and chervil. We plant all of these and love them. These also make great beneficial insect habitat, so I love having them all around the farm.
By the end of July, we have at least half of our fields empty and are preparing to plant Fall crops in August. The chore list for the last week of July includes removing many of the tattered summer crops, composting, tilling, raking, and preparing to plant. I can hardly wait! I love fall crops, and honestly think I might be better at growing cool season crops than summer crops. Not only that, I love the huge diversity of cool season crops. Bring on the winter farming!
Eat your veggies,