The cooler weather of fall and winter does not necessarily signal the end of your vegetable garden's bounty. Many crops can be extended with just a few simple protective measures, and a surprising number of items can be planted and grown when winter approaches.
Most greens only require a half-day of sunshine, so these perform well in the ground or in containers during fall: arugula, beans, peas, beets, kale, collards, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, green onions, cabbage, bok choy, endives, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens and lettuces.
Lettuces are especially hardy when planted in early September, growing quickly in warm weather and extending into cooler weather. Some lettuces, kales and collards actually sweeten when they have been touched by a bit of early-season frost. Lettuces and spinach will grow well when covered with a lightweight fabric protective layer. Garlic and shallots are best planted from September to mid-October. When spring arrives, they will produce a harvest of huge bulbs ready for use.
Underground-growing vegetables are healthy garden crops that deliver during the fall season. These include turnips, rutabagas, beets, parsnips and carrots.
With a bit of protection, herbs can continue to thrive. Nurture your spring- or summer-planted herbs -- such as parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, tarragon, sage, basil and lemon grass -- for tasty additions to your garden-fresh vegetables. Cut healthy herbs to dry and freeze for winter use.
*Prepping for New Fall Plantings
Some crops go into the ground at the start of fall. Prepare your soil by testing its pH level using an inexpensive pH testing tool. If your soil's pH level is not more than 6, add hydrated lime. You need 1 pound of hydrated lime per 100 square feet to increase the pH level by 0.5. Remove all dead plants and compost waste that is still organically sound, not riddled with rot or pest evidence. Add an inch or two of fresh compost, and rototill the beds before planting your new fall crops.
*Protecting Your Fall Crops
To protect your existing plantings from the cold weather, "use garden fabric or covers," says Fran Sorin, author of "Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening" and CBS Radio News' gardening correspondent. "If your veggies aren't covered even when there is one night of frost (32 F or below), most of your veggies won't survive. I always keep floating row covers, burlap, garden fabrics or garden quilts in stock. They protect veggies below frost and can add on an extra 30 to 60 days to a fall harvest, depending on your climate. In case of an unexpected frost, use any cover -- sheets, blankets or towels -- to protect veggies temporarily. Milk jugs do the job for protecting individual specimens."
To extend the season even further, consider investing in a cold frame or a greenhouse, Sorin says. "If you are a beginner and want to experiment, there are some inexpensive ones online or at big-box stores."
Water requirements for fall vegetables are no different from what they are during the summer, according to Sorin. "Most vegetables require an inch of water per week to thrive. Once the plants are established, it's best to water for one or two longer periods of time per week rather than several short spurts," Sorin advises, suggesting that you add more mulch if spring/summer mulch has decomposed. "An extra layer will help to conserve moisture and heat."
*When Your Garden Is Done for the Season
Prepare your garden beds now for a more productive spring by adding mulching materials to the soil. Dead leaves mixed into your garden will create sweeter tomatoes next spring, according to the experts at The Farm at Green Village. And the experts also advise adding lobster compost or garden material compost, worm castings, cottonseed meal, lime and eggshells to add calcium, which vegetables need. Never leave your soil uncovered over the winter, or soil will compact and weeds will take root.