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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fall and Winter Growing

The fall has been my favorite growing season so far. Above any other reason, it's just easy. The time leading up to fall weather, however, is anything but easy and can cause plenty of worry if you let it. From about September through mid-October, every bug seems to notice the cold weather approaching and decides to invade the garden for one last hungry horrah. Not to mention the plants you must start seeding/growing in August (the hottest time of year)are adapted to thriving in the cool season (now!) If the starts and transplants can survive the wilting heat, the bugs will surly give them a good working over. If the plant can manage to be more leaf than it is holes until the weather significantly cools, you've got yourself a nice fall stand. I'll point out that this season we had remarkably cool and wet fall weather.

To maintain this nice stand, I try to do the following:

- Hoe out all rows as regularly as possible.
My tight row spacing in the fall married with the regular rain makes it impossible to cultivate with the small tractor. I like to use a stirrup or a scuffle hoe to take out weeds. If it's dry enough, I will do this even when it's not weedy. Disturbing the soil this way aerates the soil and plant roots, while killing any germinating weed seeds. This light cultivation also leaves a thin layer of "dust" on the soil surface acting as a mulch to prevent seeds from germinating...until it rains again.

- Roll out row covers when you expect the first frost.
Row covers can extend our season significantly by protecting the crops from nightly frosts and freezes. Row covers can be weighed down with large stones, pvc pipes filled with sand, rebar, posts, logs, etc. I also like Jeff Poppen's idea of weighing down row covers with plastic pots filled with compost. When it's time to remove the cover, just throw the compost onto the field and stack the pots. Using pvc or wire hoops to hold up the cover is another way to create a mini-hot house.

My row covers are made by Agribon and give me about 6 degrees protection. Agribon also makes a heavy row cover that gives 8 degrees. For the first several light frosts, you can cover peppers, basil, and whatever other plants you want to keep producing. When these rows of frost-intolerant plants are winter-killed, simply lift their cover and move it over to the beets, carrots, chard, whatever and get double the insulation.

- Manage Harvests
Things grow slow in the fall and winter due to the cold and lack of sunlight with the shorter days. I try to pay close attention to the growth of each crop, how fast it can regenerate after harvest, how it is holding up against the cold, etc. To give you some idea, crops that can typically be harvested weekly and rebound in the summer and fall (like kale and chard) take 2-3 weeks to recharge this time of year.

I also planted my fall/winter rows close together [about 12" - 18") so they could all easily fit under one row cover. This also makes it easier to harvest and hoe, while allowing you to grow 3 rows in what was only 1 row this spring and summer. I would prefer to mulch the paths separating the rows (I use hay), but haven't done so on every path for a few reasons.

SO, why do most people throw in the gardening towel sometime in August? I definitely relate to the overwhelmed feeling of "I can't go on" during the height of the season, but if you suck it up and get some seeds in the ground you're set. It's mid-December and we're having some of our highest quality harvests this year!

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