The days are numbered for this year’s growing season, but the party is not over yet. There is still plenty of time to plant selected vegetables that like growing from late summer to fall, when temperatures are dropping and days are getting shorter.
The veggies on my last-to-be-planted list have a few things in common. The seeds are usually fast germinators that produce large seedlings, so they are good candidates for direct-seeding into well-worked soil fortified with a fresh helping of compost. The big seedlings are easily distinguished from weeds, which tend to be few compared to spring’s big flush of weedy greenies. Broad leaves are also a common characteristic here, perhaps because wide leaves are efficient collectors of solar energy.
To varying degrees, these eight fast-growing vegetables for autumn also benefit from exposure to cold. Chilly nights enhance their flavor and most of them continue to make new growth well into fall, until the light supply wanes and the first frosts arrive. Here they are, in alphabetical order, with a few tips for getting a good fall crop.
Arugula rushes to bolt when grown in spring, but autumn crops grow into lush plants with big, flavorful leaves. I use tender young arugula in salads or on sandwiches, and use the larger leaves as braising greens. Arugula lightly sautéed with olive oil and garlic is the perfect accompaniment for pasta.
2. Bok Choy
Bok choy (shown at the top of the page) grows with amazing speed, with dwarf or “baby” strains growing from seed to table in only six weeks. The crispy rosettes are delicious stir fried with a little sesame oil, or you can halve them for searing on a grill. Bok choy is fun to ferment into kimchi, too.
Kale’s buttery-tasting cousin, collards are especially well suited to direct-seeding in late summer. You may need to protect the thinned seedlings from cabbageworms, but as fall progresses collards rapidly outgrow their enemies. Expect superior culinary qualities from garden-grown collards, which have a remarkably mild flavor and tender texture. In addition to using collards as cooked greens, I use the leaves to line the bottoms of casserole dishes so that they form a green crust beneath bubbly baked pastas or various grain and veggie combos.
Lettuce is always worth sowing in pinches before a period of cloudy weather, or you can use shade covers to shield emerging seedlings from hot sun. Autumn is a good season to try upright romaines, or you can go for the soft crunch in “Bibb” varieties like ‘Little Gem’, ‘Buttercrunch’ or ‘Tom Thumb’.
Mustard comes in a range of types, from frilly ‘GreenWave’ to finely cut mizuna, or you might like smooth-leafed, mild tasting spinach-mustard. All mustards are a beautiful presence in the fall garden, and a few red mustard plants are worth growing for their looks alone. Cool weather tames the flavor of mustard, though smooth-leafed spinach-mustard, often called ‘Tendergreen’, or komatsuna in Japan, has only a hint of mustard bitterness when grown in the fall.
Radishes can surprise you with their willingness to make a fall crop, especially little salad radishes like ‘Champion’ or ‘Cherry Belle’. Simply sow the seeds, keep the soil moist and the bed nicely thinned, and you can expect to see radishes popping up in a few short weeks.
Tremendously cold-hardy spinach is capable of making rapid growth where autumns are long and mild. You can grow any type of spinach as a fall crop, but the fastest growers are large-leafed “giant” varieties like ‘Oriental Giant’ and ‘Viroflay’, which make superior use of limited sun. In terms of flavor, some of the best spinach of the year is harvested in autumn, after the leaves have been sweetened by a several light frosts.
Turnips can be grown for greens, roots, or both! Fast-maturing salad turnips like ‘Tokyo Cross’ are beautiful and dependable, with the tender roots suitable for quick pickling if you don’t want to cook them along with the greens. Should you get lucky with the weather and grow a bumper crop of turnip roots, harvest them before they can be damaged by hard freezes and they will store for weeks in the refrigerator.