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The most wonderful (gardening) time of the year

Growing a garden during the regular summer season here in Oklahoma can be a slog of uncomfortable heat and drought. 114+ temperatures, weeks without rain...painful. Without our reliable perennial fruit trees, some of us would grow little at all. Many Oklahoma farmers and gardeners have even begun muttering about giving up completely on the summer garden. But the fall season? Now, that's a different story.

Zone 7 gardeners can start a second round of plants in the late summer for a fall crop - selecting warm- or cool-season plants that yield quickly in September and October. Others plant cool-season crops that will survive through the fall, winter, and spring with the simple, cheap, and low-tech protection of a row cover. In Oklahoma City, the first frost is traditionally between Nov. 1 and Nov. 10.  However, along with much earlier springs, we have also recently been enjoying later first frosts, giving plants plenty of time to get established (and giving us plenty of time to plant).

In the cooler fall temperatures, it's more enjoyable to get out in the garden to plant and easier to water, since evaporation levels are lower. In fact, I rarely have to water after the seeds sprout and the plants get established. Plus, weeds and pests are fewer, making fall gardening a cinch for anyone to try - and succeed.

Here is a short list of some plants that enjoy cooler temperatures:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage / Napa Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Swiss Chard
  • Spinach
  • Parsley
  • Turnips
  • Beets

You'll notice that many of these choices are some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available. Garlic and onions are great immunity-boosters, while all leafy-green vegetables are "super-stars" of nutrition, with high levels of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals.

My two favorite fall crops are kale and garlic. Garlic is tasty, nutritious, stores well, and is absolutely easy to grow. Home-grown garlic has much juicier cloves than the stuff available at the store. The difference is noticeable. To grow garlic, plant individual unpeeled bulbs in the late fall (here in Oklahoma, I usually plant in early October), water them a few times, and forget about them until the early summer, when you notice that they need to be harvested. Dig them up, let them "cure" for a few days, then tuck them away to use throughout the year. Then, re-plant in the fall.

I also love kale. Kale provides an amazingly long, virtually never-ending harvest of leafy greens. Eating kale is like taking vitamins, but in the form of a whole food with extra nutritious phyto-chemicals and fiber to fill you up. Although the taste of spinach (which is similarly green and nutritious) is milder and more attractive to my family, I have a hard time getting spinach seeds to germinate, even after soaking them overnight.  Kale is easier, in my opinion.

Last fall, as cooler temperatures arrived, I planted kale in two locations - one protected by a simple row cover, one completely un-protected. Both survived the mild winter, even as I repeatedly harvested the leaves. They then put on a heroic burst of growth in the spring, giving me early-season greens until April. The kale I planted in the fall performed much better than the kale I planted in the spring.

This year, I am planting garlic, kale, broccoli, napa cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and swiss chard, and I'll plan to protect everything (except for the garlic and carrots) with row covers as soon as frost approaches - or as soon as I notice any cabbage moths.  About half of  my garden space is currently filled with warm-season crops that are still yielding (okra, watermelons, peppers, basil), but in typical fashion, my tomatoes and squash have already withered to the point that they were useless. So I yanked them to give me space for my fall crops.

After several years of frustration, I had almost given up on growing broccoli. The darn cabbage moths always got them, no matter how much I picked away the little green worms. But this spring, I tried protecting the broccoli plants with row cover, and they actually yielded a nice harvest (despite a small hole which let some moths inside). So, I'm planting broccoli again this fall.

In short, planting in the cool autumn season offers much higher returns than planting in the spring. It's easier, has a longer harvest, yields some of my favorite crops, and takes less water and work. Trouble-free yields for six months? In my opinion, it's completely worth investing a few dollars and a few hours of planting time.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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