Wednesday, October 9, 2013

To Plant or not to Plant a Fall Vegetable Garden

Fall is the perfect time in Southern California for planting perennials and non-deciduous trees. However, there is a debate in my mind if fall is the best time to plant a vegetable garden. I attempted a fall vegetable garden in the past, with mixed to poor results, despite all the advice my gardening books give to the contrary. Fall can be a great time to garden, as long as temperatures are cooler and more comfortable. But beware the Santa Ana winds; those devil winds bring miserable dry heat that makes yard work misery rather than a labor of love!

The logistics of a fall vegetable garden are very tricky. If you wish to start plants from seed for fall harvest, the seeds need to be started by mid-August and theoretically planted by mid-September.  But this means starting cool weather crops (root and leaf vegetables) during what is usually the hottest and driest times of the year. I often find that the hottest temps of the year occur in September or October, much to the consternation of our tourists. October starts exceptionally dry with Santa Ana winds blowing off the deserts, desiccating delicate plants, and aiding and abetting wildfires in the dry back country. This period can extend through November or end in early October depending on when the first wet season rains descend upon the region. This variability makes for frustrated attempts at cool season vegetables. I found that an early wet season tends to favor growth of cool season vegetables and extended heat and dryness stunts them or worse, kills them.

Pomegranates to be harvested
By early fall, I am usually spent, tried of all the responsibility of a vegetable garden, and am ready for the welcome respite of winter. I wind down the warm season crops: completing the final harvests of tomatoes, removing dying marigolds and other annual flowers, pruning perennial shrubs, and the general clean up that comes with preparing for winter. I also preserve the harvest: drying herbs, juicing and freezing pomegranate juice, making and freezing tomato sauce, and making and freezing fig jam. I still need to plant my cover crops (native wildflowers and crimson clover) after removing warm season vegetables from the beds. That is a lot to do and nurse tender cool weather seedlings through unforgiving weather!

Swiss chard
This year I successfully grew Swiss chard from seed for fall harvest. My poor kale plants are being eaten mercilessly by black beetles and white flies; they are going to end up a total loss. I started tomatoes later this year and have a later harvest because of the late timing. The wind down is taking longer this year, taking away focus from the broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and arugula that shriveled up and died as seedlings. My best advice for the fall is to focus on winding down the warm season, cleaning up the garden, and preserving the harvest. The cool weather crops can wait to be planted in late winter or early spring. Ultimately they prefer this timing, and weather conditions are more apt to allow them to grow and thrive.

Winding down the tomatoes - the 2 above photos are a Romanian heirloom we call "Corey's Grandpa." The one in my hand weighed almost 2 lbs! While the plants do not produce quantity, they produce huge quality fruits. This is one of my favorite tomatoes: gorgeous coloring, hug size, light, sweet yet flavorful taste - overall impressive on all accounts!

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