FALL IS LIKE a second spring in our mild Pacific Northwest growing region. With a little seasonally adjusted planning, now through September is your window for planting another round of cool-season crops for fall and winter harvest.
When it comes to deciding what to plant, think leafy greens, like Swiss chard, kale, arugula and salad greens. Sow leftover pea seeds thickly to produce a crop of tasty greens with sweet pea flavor, even if the plants don’t produce pods. Mature root crops, like carrots, beets and turnips, hold nicely in the “outdoor refrigerator” that is the winter garden. And if you plant sprouting broccoli in fall to overwinter and produce in early spring, you’ll avoid pesky cabbage worms and other summer pests.
Transplants set into the still-warm soil of summer and early fall get off to a quick start. However, while tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other summer crops relish the heat, most fall and winter crops decidedly don’t. Many seeds of cool-season crops won’t germinate in warm soil because conditions are not suitable for growth — these are seeds with a sense of self-preservation.
Fortunately, many local nurseries bring in vegetable starts for the fall and winter garden. However, for the greatest selection of choice varieties, it pays to learn a few seasonal secrets that allow you to cheat the heat and grow your own transplants.
Calculate when to start plantings of individual crops by looking up “days to maturity” information included on most seed packets, and, in a reversal of accelerating growth in spring, add on a couple of weeks to factor in cooling weather and diminishing light levels. Now count backward from the estimated first frost date to determine the best planting date. First frost dates for Western Washington range from mid-October in colder areas to mid-November in coastal regions and around Puget Sound.
Most people don’t consider transplanting vegetables from one part of the garden to another, but summer sowing is the perfect time to put this practice to the test. During hot weather, it’s much easier to care for seedlings grown in the ground rather than caring for a number of small plastic pots that must be watered several times a day during a heat wave. Creating a temporary home for fall and winter transplants concentrates your tending to one area while ensuring that your plants will be ready and waiting to be set out into the garden as soon as summer crops are harvested.
Site your “nursery bed” in a part of the garden that receives at least some dappled shade, ideally located near a convenient water source. Amend the soil with compost, and rake it to a fine texture before sowing short rows or blocks of seed into the well-prepared bed. Damp burlap laid directly on the surface of your seedbed helps preserve moisture — just be sure to keep a close eye and remove covering as soon as seedlings emerge. A double layer of horticultural fleece also works and “floats” to shield emerging seedlings from strong summer sun.
Once seedlings are about 3 inches tall or have four to six true leaves, the young plants can be carefully dug, separated and transplanted into areas of the garden as space becomes available. It’s important to keep your seedlings and transplants evenly moist. Fall rains never looked so good.