4 Tips to Get Your Fall Crops off to a Perfect Start

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Cabbage seedlings under growlights

Now that I’ve harvested my garlic, onions, and potatoes, there is plenty of open space for new plantings. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to restart your garden with vegetables that grow well during the odd summer-to-fall season.

The fall vegetable season really is backward compared to spring, with hot days that are getting shorter, and soil that will cool down as the plants mature. Unusual as it is, fall is a dream season for radishes, carrots, cabbage cousins and many Asian vegetables, so filling up the garden is easy. The hard part is getting fall crops up and growing in hot summer weather.

To keep things moving along, I use several simple techniques to restart my garden for fall. Just as you protect spring seedlings from cold and wind, emerging fall crops often need help with sun, heat, and dry conditions.

1. Direct-sow under blankets or boards

In my climate there is just enough time to plant warm-season crops including bush snap beans, cucumbers and squash if they are grown from direct-sown seeds, so there is no setback from transplanting. Warm soil is not a problem for these seeds, but they must be kept moist. The best way I have found is to cover the planted seeds with boards for a few days after planting, and then move the boards aside to allow the seedlings to emerge. But I don’t take the boards away altogether, because boards laid alongside seedlings provide some shelter from drying sun, with the boards deflecting some of the sun’s heat. In late summer, the same boards I use to hold down the edges of row covers become “nurse” boards for germinating seeds.

“Bean

You also can use blankets, old sheets or folded row cover to maintain moisture in newly seeded beds. Either arrange the cover directly over the planted area and weight the corners to secure them, or use your cover to create a shady tunnel. Old bed sheets make excellent cooling covers for carrots and other slow-germinating seeds, as do used sheer curtains purchased at the thrift store. Both are easy to attach to hoops, stakes or cages with clothespins should you wish to hold them aloft.

2. Start seeds indoors

Many seeds germinate better indoors than outdoors this time of year, so it’s best to get out your lights and seedling flats again to start seeds of slower-growing fall crops like cabbage.

This year I’m trying big drumhead cabbages, which will grow alongside broccoli and broccolini. Beautiful Swiss chard and Chinese cabbage deserve a head start indoors, too, or you can try bulb fennel or fast-growing kohlrabi.

“Garden

3. Add compost to beds

A local farmer says you should never start seeds of something without being almost ready to set it out, and he’s right. Fortunately, midsummer brings a copious supply of finished compost that is easily chopped away from the bottom of the heap, so I can give each bed a generous helping. Once amended, I let the beds rest dry, because weeds don’t sprout in dry soil.

In warm climates where planting pauses for a few weeks in summer, you can use the time to grow a quick cover crop of buckwheat.

“Shade

4. Provide shade covers for seedlings

After sprouting the seeds indoors, I grow my fall seedlings outside under the shade of a patio umbrella, and bring them indoors during stormy weather. It is also good to shift them to larger containers to avoid crowded roots and reduce the risk of scant soil drying out.

Good transplanting conditions are crucial, too. Make sure the seedlings and the planting bed are nicely moist, and set out the seedlings on a cloudy day if you can. In all types of weather, it helps immensely to cover the transplanted seedlings with an upturned flowerpot or small cardboard box for a couple of days. In addition to shielding the seedlings from too much sun, the covers will provide protection from wild things that feel compelled to sniff or sample the garden’s newest residents.

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