Start Your Fall Kitchen Garden NOW

Radicchio in early December

Now is when you should start your fall and winter Kitchen Garden.

Truly, there are some things that should be planted in May or June for fall harvesting because those crops take a long time to mature (like celeriac, parsnip, the perennial sunchokes, winter cabbages, winter leeks, Brussels sprouts and a few other things). But they are so many vegetables that can be planted now (and over the next few weeks) for wonderful fresh eating in the fall & winter.

Yes, I know: it’s hot (although not so much here this year, we have not had 100 ° F weather like last year); the gnats are terrible; it’s dry and, yes, it IS (some) work. But what are you going to do in mid-October after you’ve been scrounging around for your last green tomatoes before frost spoils them, wondering if you’ll manage to ripen them inside (don’t you want to eat something else, by then, anyway?) and getting in the winter squashes (you planted winter squash – right?)… With the rapidly declining day length, the sharpening of the air that’s telling you that winter is coming, the birds going south and the cry of the geese overhead, with the nights in the low 40’s, the smell of smoke from the woodstove hanging in the moist air, everything green and fresh is going to be precious, whether a delicate lettuce for a quick salad lunch, or the more robust Lacinata kale – that darling of Tuscan white bean, sausage and kale soup – , or a young, fresh, crisp radish with a little salt & butter. Or a sweet baby carrot, or a bunch of little white turnips to sautée with some whole cumin seeds, or a bouquet of frost-sweetened arugula for the grilled pizza, or some young leeks for braising or… or.. or… you get the idea, I hope (I, on the other hand, am getting hungry – again.)

Kale in early December

And indeed, I am trying to demonstrate to whomever will listen that with a little planning, some work (sorry – can’t get around that!) and the willingness to eat in season, one can eat well in Virginia in the cold season from things grown locally – the most local of it being one’s backyard. I am not the only one either; great gardeners in my community have been doing it successfully for years and are willing to teach others: for example, Donna LaPre of Field and Flower in Washington, VA offers occasional gardening classes, Harvey Ussery in Orlean, VA lectures, writes for national publications and maintains a very informative website, or Pablo Elliot at Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton, VA who heads the Local Food Project and conducts garden tours and seminars several times a year.

So, I held a workshop this morning on “Starting Your Fall/Winter Garden From Seeds”. We went over the basics of the fall & winter garden: what to plant; where to plant; how to plant; when to plant/transplant; cultivar selection; seed sourcing; seed starting & germination; how to grow; how to give plants protection from the sun, the bugs or from the cold or the wind (depending on the plant); how to extend the harvest and other tips… Everybody left with a seeded tray of seeds that they selected from my seed collection and a few pinches of seeds that are better to direct sow in the garden. They also left with hand outs including a detailed planting calendar (well, yes, I know, I AM advertising a little). Afterwards we had a tour of the kitchen garden where different techniques were demonstrated and participants could see usual plants – sometimes grown a little unusually – and unusual ones like celeriac, cardoon, chayote, day-neutral strawberries, cutting celery, sorrel, cape gooseberries (aka ground cherries)… Everybody seemed happy and since there were lots of questions, I’ve got to think – at least until I get the requested feed-back back – that it was an informative and enjoyable class. (Ok, enough with gloating and back-patting!)

Salad bed ready for Harvest in late October

So, what to plant now, and in the next few weeks, for the fall garden? Leaf and root crops such as: arugula/ rocket, beets, broccoli, broccoli leaf, cauliflower, quick maturing cabbage, carrots, Chinese cabbage, Savoy cabbage, celery leaf /cutting celery, chicory/radicchio, cilantro, collard, endive/ escarole, frisee escarole, kale (which comes in so many shape & color: smooth, crinkled, frilly, blue, green, reddish, purple, dark green), quick maturing leeks, lettuce (quick maturing ones and winter ones), mache/corn salad, mustard greens (including all the Japanese ones like tatsoi, mizuna…), onion sets, parsley, peas (quick maturing, snow & sugar snap), radishes & winter radishes, spinach, Swiss chard & perpetual spinach beets, turnip roots & turnip greens.

Tatsoi ready to pick in mid-November

You see, there is no need to “put your garden to bed” after frost. With some planning, you can have a very productive plot in the Northern Piedmont most years through mid-December (for January & February, most years, you’ll need some plant protection to keep harvesting in those months ). And frankly some of those crops will do a lot better in the fall than in the spring when a little heat wave will make spinach or mache bolt in a matter of hours and the bugs are relentless.

What to do if you don’t want to start your own seeds? Garden centers and some local nurseries sell transplants for those who want to go that road – although the choice is greatly reduced compared to spring and you can (should) only buy transplants of things that transplant easily (so not carrots or beets!). Buy them and transplant them as soon as you can.

No tomatoes, corn or peppers in the winter garden. There are ways to extend the tomato season into October and sometimes November, but, really those are heat lovers that require lots of sun and lots of heat. I eat them with intense pleasure when they are fresh in summer & early fall, and put them up at peak of flavor by freezing corn; freezing roasted peppers, drying & pickling peppers; drying, freezing and canning tomatoes… which reminds me that I need to go stir the pot that’s simmering on the stove and check on the paste that I am making trying to make. If the paste is successful, I’ll post the recipe. Like many thinks I do, it’s easy, just take some care and attention.

Good night: dream of a nice fall salad made with just-picked frisée endive, caramelized red onions, crisp smoky bacon, slices of warm potatoes and a poached farm-fresh egg or two. And a slice of fresh crusty home-made bread. Doesn’t that make you want to go start some seeds?

3 thoughts on “Start Your Fall Kitchen Garden NOW”

  • My husband and I are new to Rappahannock County. We were former resident’s of Fairfax and Falls Church. I love living in this special place where we are tucked away from the city. I have always loved combining French with country, and the old with the new. This is why I am so intrigued by your website and the workshops and recipes that you offer.

    I’m sorry I missed your workshop on Fall/Winter gardening. I have plans to grow lavender this year and I have a kitchen garden. This year I have a successful herb garden, but I am lacking many of the unusual plants that you grow. I’d love to visit your garden sometime and meet you and your husband.

    Please keep the recipes and information available. I will continue to review your workshop offerings and I look forward to your tomatoe paste recipe too! Marilyn

  • Marilyn – welcome to RappCo. We used to live in the City of Falls Church ourselves. Thanks for checking the web site and the blog – which I am ashamed to say has not been update in a MONTH. But I have been very busy, and I am writing a post of the latest fest: lamb roast on a spit for 65!

    I bit into a few too many projects this year, so the garden feels like a jungle! But when it’s a little more under control, I am happy to have you come over.

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