So you think the gardening year is winding down? Think again. We are entering the best all-around planting season of the year. Let’s start with vegetables. Depending on the weather, you can still get fall and winter harvests from sowings of lettuce, mache, arugula and other leafy greens, with or without protection from cloches or row covers. Carrots too. Kale, mustard and beets, planted now as starts, can yield from late fall through early spring. Enrich the beds for overwintering crops with compost before you plant, but don’t add too much fertilizer. Save it for a booster in late winter.
Cover crops like crimson clover and fava beans can be seeded now through October in empty beds to protect the soil from winter rains. They will also provide fresh, nitrogen-rich organic matter for next year’s crops. And it’s an ideal time to build new raised beds, which can then be planted right away, by seed or starts, with winter-hardy edibles, seeded with a cover crop or simply covered with a layer of fall leaves to await planting in late winter. It is hard to over-state the value of raised beds in a wet climate. Some people sow peas in fall to overwinter — and sweetpeas, too. I wouldn’t try that without a raised bed.
Speaking of fava beans, there are two distinct types. One has smallish, pea-like seeds and is also known as bell or faba bean. The other has large, flat beans, sometimes called, appropriately, broad beans. Both are good, cold hardy cover crops with sturdy roots, good for breaking up heavy soils. Last year I planted broad beans in an empty raised bed I had readied for potatoes, intending them as a cover crop to cut and turn under in spring. They grew so well, I decided to eat some thinnings (the tips are good in salads and stir fries) and let the remainder grow and produce beans.
Broad beans are one of my favorite foods. As the beans mature the pale seed coat gets tough and strongly flavored, and most people prefer to remove it (you cook the beans, briefly, first). While the beans are about half an inch long, there is no need to peel them. After that it’s a matter of taste. You can also let them mature completely and dry on the plant: broad beans are used to make the traditional Egyptian dish, ful medames. Buy seed of a variety selected for eating.
In the flower garden it’s time to plant peony roots, daffodils and small spring flowering bulbs. Tulips can wait a month or two. But autumn isn’t just for planting spring bulbs and kale. Michael Kaszycki of Fox Hollow Nursery would like to remind you that it’s a great time to plant just about anything. “It’s your choice,” he says, “would you rather plant on a cold, miserable wet day in April or a beautiful day in fall?” Kaszycki would also like to sell you plants, of course. Plant sales have been slow since the economy tanked, and like many a nurseryman these days he’s a bit overstocked. But he’s absolutely right about fall planting. Early fall is perfect for dividing your own perennials, too
Aside from the likelihood of pleasant weather, why should you plant in fall? Soil tends to be at its most workable after autumn rains (or, if rain is slow in coming, after strategic irrigation). Some heavy clay soils are only workable in fall, but even with better soil there are advantages. When you plant early in spring, growth is slow. Plant late in spring, and hot weather can dry plants out before they establish a good root system. Soil is warm in fall, and moisture levels are optimal. Plants root out quickly, and then you get the benefit of fall and winter rains to keep them moist. When next summer arrives, those plants have had months to become established and will demand less attention from the gardener.
Fall planting is almost essential for native gardens that will receive minimal supplemental water. It’s also a good time to plant containerized trees, shrubs and vines. In fact just about anything can be fall planted as long as you can get it — and this year that may be easier than ever, especially if you shop at small “alternative” nurseries where the proprietors propagate much of their stock and keep it from year to year. Fox Hollow Nursery, near the corner of 28th and Friendly, is bursting with ornamental and fruiting plants of every description. He is one of several enterprising local growers who sell plants at the Lane County Farmers Market.