Act: Inspiration

Fall Garden Success!

January 14, 2020

Around here, we have a goal to produce 80% of our veg, fruit, meat and dairy within five years of moving onto our land. This is year three, and while we’ve reached that goal for summer veg like tomatoes and cucumbers (until this year’s drought), I have not had as much success with the fall garden until this year.

This is a real shame because fall vegetables are my favorite. I grew up in Alaska, where corn and eggplant are impossible but cold-tolerant veggies thrive through the short, bright summers. In Palmer, Alaska, I accidentally grew nasturtiums that sent their vines into the street. Local farmers there are famous for holding the world record for the largest cabbage. I love cabbage, especially as homemade live sauerkraut. The carrots, turnips and arugula up there are super-sweet because of the moderate temperatures and long daylight. The beets, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli and English peas are excellent.

In North Carolina, it’s far too hot for these crops in the summer. They turn inedibly bitter or just give up and die. They have to be squeezed into the shoulder seasons, which are highly variable in temperature and unpredictable in length. This is not a recipe for easy gardening success. Some of my cool-weather favorites, like beets, arugula, and green onion, will tolerate freezing and survive under the snow, but they don’t do much growing once it gets cold. Others, like potatoes, blacken and shrivel at the first touch of frost. Timing is critical, and that’s what I’ve been screwing up.

Perennial French sorrel

Perennial French sorrel looks a bit sad this time of year, but it still tastes as bright and lemony in scrambled eggs, soups or salads.

In order to have a chance to put on good growth as the year wanes, these cold-weather crops must be planted in August and September. These are the most jam-packed, sweat-dripping months on our farm. I’m typically rushing around like a crazy person, dehydrating and pickling everything I can get my hands on, barely keeping up if I’m lucky. Animals and children still need all the usual attention. It’s too hot to even move in the afternoon. My husband goes back to work full time each August, which feels like misplacing my right hand. It’s the worst possible moment to try to keep delicate little green things alive in the baking sun.

After several years in a row of completely failing to keep anything alive, this year I had some pretty good success! I planted collards, turnips, cabbage, kale, broccoli Raab, beets, carrots, arugula, mustard spinach, lettuce and chard. Of those, the ones that succeeded partially were turnips, carrots, chard and beets, while the arugula and mustard spinach did awesome. Notice I’m declaring great success, even though actually most of that stuff failed. With gardening, failure is a constant companion. It takes years to figure it out, and even then not everything succeeds, and that has to be okay. That’s why those prepper seed banks you can buy are so laughable. Nobody who has even attempted a garden would imagine that having the seeds is the same as harvesting the food.

Turnips growing in a fall garden

Nabo Roxo Comprido turnips are stylish and delicious.

The turnips this year were a variety called Nabo Roxo Comprido. They’re an unusual shape, more carroty than turnipy. The seed originally came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which isn’t the cheapest company but I keep going back because so many of the varieties are better suited for my climate. Nabo Roxo Comprido has a pretty standard purple-top flavor, but it is also used as an animal forage crop which I (and my goats) consider a plus.

When I planted this variety in the spring, it got too hot too fast, and they made their bitter compounds. There’s no going back after that happens. The turnip is just inedible. I fed some to the goats who don’t mind the bitterness, but I was so discouraged that I just left some in the row. They grew all giant and scraggly and made a whole bunch of seed, which I collected just to see what it would do even though I was pretty sure it had crossed with some other things I also lost control over. When I planted it I was expecting some of those hybrids that are all stalk and no roots. I didn’t have much hope I would get nice turnips, but there they are! That makes this one a double success.

Turnips o a cutting board

A unique and delicious turnip for salads and saute.

The carrots were a variety called oxheart, also from Sothern Exposure. Previously I’d been trying the long nanates-type varieties, but my garden currently consists of about six inches of sheet mulch over packed red clay left behind by the earthmoving equipment that excavated our septic field. In wet weather, this clay is quite penetrable to roots. When dry, it’s like cement. Seriously. We tried to dig a trench through this red stuff to lay some electrical cable up to the new pole barn and broke a piston on the backhoe. Over time, I notice the soil creatures in our no-till system are mixing up the layers. The sweet potatoes are busting the clay apart. The new layers of mulch I’m adding on top are filtering down. But in the meantime, that clay is just too hard for sad little carrots, and their length was suffering.

That’s how I came to trial oxhearts. They’re meant to be short, shaped more like a little rutabaga than a carrot. This spring they did very well, producing many fat little orange gems with pretty good flavor, for a non-Alaskan carrot. We ate them all summer, and I still have some chopped in the freezer. They also produced bales of beautiful green foliage, which is a goat favorite.

Carrots growing in a fall garden

Oxheart carrots are very happy grown in sheet mulch.

Let’s talk a little more about this goat fav, shall we? I was trying to clear the carrot bed prior to the yearly beach trip, just when I was also trying to dry the milk goat down to one milking a day so my neighbor could handle her. I saw an unexplained BIG surge in production when I should have been seeing the milk falling off. Beach-day was fast approaching and I was starting to panic because I could barely milk her out, and I’m pretty experienced. How was my newbie neighbor, talented though she’d proven herself, ever going to manage? And where was it all coming from?

My slow brain finally caught up. Carrots are in the plant family Apiaceae. Their close relatives are wild Queen Anne’s lace, giant hogweed, celery, dill, cilantro, celeriac, parsnip, parsley and… wait for it… fennel. You know, the #1 most important ingredient in mother’s milk teas and lactation cookies because it promotes lactation. I was trying to dry down my poor goat while feeding her heaps of delicious lactation support greens.

I felt like an idiot. It never even occurred to me that human and goat lactation hormones must be pretty similar, subject to the same nutritional encouragements and discouragements. And it should have occurred to me that carrots would have most of the same compounds as fennel, being so closely related. Next time I’m trying to dry down a goat, I’ll feed her sage instead. This is yet another reminder that in homesteading, it’s not any one thing that’ll get you, it’s always the interactions between things. Interactions are the wellspring of the biggest benefits, and the source of the biggest disasters. The new puppy is fine on her own and the chickens are fine on their own, but put them together and you get dead chickens. Sigh.

The water tanks ran empty in August because it hadn’t rained in months, so I ended up using some city water to irrigate, which rankles me. I hate to pay for things that can be gotten free, but it was all I could do to haul water a dozen feet from the spigot in the heat. There was no way I could bring it up by hand from the pond, and August is not the best time to embark on an ambitious rearrangement of the watering system (I’m planning to do that in February). I’m dreaming of doubling the capacity of the roof catchment, and putting rain-barrel-approved soaker hoses on a portion of the rows.

So, cool-weather crops are much easier to get started in the spring. Most of those listed above can go into the ground in the first couple weeks of March (if you’re in central NC, this is an excellent planting guide. If you’re not, most American regions have a similar guide published by their own local Cooperative Extension). English peas and root crops like carrots and beets must be direct-planted. Broccoli, cabbage, onions and others tolerate transplanting, so they can be started inside in the beginning of February.

This method works for fall, too. I could start broccoli in the house on the 4th of July, and put it out in the garden the first of September (after a hardening-off period, of course). I know people who have had good success this way. But on the 4th of July, I’m typically trying to get the homestead ready to survive my absence for a few days while I’m at the beach. This is more difficult than it sounds, and there’s never been an extra moment for starting seedlings. gardening has to fit in around life.

Since I haven’t yet managed to extend my fall garden season on the front end, I must extend it on the tail. The absolute best resource I’ve found for this is Elliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest.  Coleman is an organic farmer in Maine who harvests all year round, without expensive and planet-damaging supplemental heat. I especially appreciate his comparison of the economics and environmental impact of shipping lettuce versus growing it locally under plastic. There is also a section about variety-hunting in France, which is particularly delicious to re-read when frost blankets the ground outside.

If you’re thinking you’re too far north for winter harvesting, don’t despair. When I met Coleman at a conference at College of the Atlantic in 2008, I asked him how far north he thought four-season farming could be extended. His answer was immediate and decisive: the 60th latitude. I was really encouraged, and asked him about my birth city of Anchorage, Alaska, with its comparatively mild maritime climate at the 61st latitude. The food security issues up there are serious, what with the long winter and the even longer supply chain. His answer: “Well. Three-season farming, at the very least.”

I utilize several of Coleman’s practices in my own garden. First and foremost is choosing varieties that do well with winter temperatures, and learning to shift our diet with the seasons. At first this sounds like giving up choice, eating arugula and carrots again when I could pick up a red tomato in the produce section. But in practice, eating beets when there are beets until I’m tired of beets and then eating okra instead for a couple of months, well, it genuinely feels like more variety, not less. The beet recipes go away long enough for me to just start to really miss them, and then they reappear like an old friend dropping in. Back when I didn’t have the seasonal round inspiring me to refresh the weekly recipe lineup, we would get stuck in a culinary rut. That doesn’t happen anymore.

I also built some cold frames similar to those in Four-Season Harvest. I got used storm windows from our local ReStore for $5 each, and made plywood frames to fit under them. This works pretty well, especially for small winter gardens that are fairly closely tended, such as in a suburban backyard. A cold frame will give about five degrees of protection on cold nights, which doesn’t sound like much but it really makes the difference for cold tolerant crops. On sunny days they get warm enough inside to allow real growth.

In early fall and late spring they get too warm. The frames must be opened either by hand or by an automatic device to allow ventilation, or the lettuce will cook. They aren’t well ventilated otherwise, and can develop some of the same fungal issues as greenhouses. This year, our summer roselle hibiscus was growing in the frames. It didn’t finish in time to let me plant fall crops there, so the frames are sheltering my collection of baby figs instead.

Row cover utilized in a fall garden

Row cover provides frost protection in the fall, and keeps the insects off in the spring while letting air, water and light through to the vegetables beneath.

Another very high-value, low-tech season extension technology is row fabric (also called remay). This is delicate stuff, but it provides good light, water and air transmittance while also giving several degrees of protection, and it’s a key to my success this fall. In the spring, I’ll use it to give a temperature boost to my broccoli and cabbage while also keeping off the flea beetle and cabbage white. Someday I hope to have Coleman’s pinnacle of passive cold protection: a little banked greenhouse with crops growing under fabric, with the two layers together providing a good ten-degree boost. We’ll have carrots and salads all winter!

Arugula growing under row cover

A peek under the row cover shows thriving arugula.

You might be wondering, since I do so much better with cool-season crops in the spring, why don’t I grow the year’s worth then? Good question. It’s undeniably more successful. This year we had more spring beets than we wanted to eat. I diced and froze a bunch for winter beet pasta risotto and beet fried rice. But storage takes work and space and time and sometimes electricity, and while the result is better than store-bought it’s not quite as vibrant and fresh as something plucked right from the ground. We’re still learning here, and I can’t predict with much accuracy what form our future constellation of production and preservation methods will take. Given that we live in a climate where things can grow all year if they get the right help, for now I’m going to do my best to grow them all year.

What do you grow when it gets chilly? How do you help it survive? Tell me about it below.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building personal resilience, Building resilient food and farming systems, gardening, home gardening