What beats sitting down to a fabulous feast at Thanksgiving dinner? How about including harvests from your own backyard as a part of all those holiday meals? Sure we always have frost, freezes, and sometimes ice and snow by the time the fall and winter holiday seasons arrive, but here in Central PA you can continue to enjoy garden fresh produce in spite of the cold weather.
The key is to make early plans for a winter harvest, choose hardy vegetable varieties, and provide a little protection to extend the growing and harvesting period far beyond the timeframes of the average backyard gardener.
Making Plans for the Fall Vegetable Garden
When laying out the spring garden I always think forward to the end of summer and give consideration to the requirements of the fall vegetable garden. This entails grouping plants with similar growing seasons and times to maturity in the same bed or growing area. By planning ahead, the same block of space used for summer tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can be freed up in time to replant with fall crops.
Many gardeners assume that cold temperatures are their biggest hurdle to growing fall vegetables, but if fact the reduced amount of sunlight and shorter day lengths are a much greater handicap to cultivating veggies during the fall and winter months. The challenge is to time those plantings so that the crops grow rapidly during early autumn and are ready to harvest before the bitter cold of winter takes hold on the garden.
It may require some trial and error on your part to determine the best time to plant a fall garden, but it’s better to plant too early than to get your crops in the ground too late. Record the dates that you planted, note the results as the fall crops mature, and adjust the timing in future seasons if necessary.
For a general planting schedule or timetable, determine the first average fall frost date for your region and work backwards to determine the appropriate time to plant those winter vegetables. But keep in mind that the fall crops will grow and mature slower under the lower light conditions of autumn than they would if planted in the spring or summer.
Choosing Hardy Vegetables for the Fall and Winter Garden
Right now my garden is still loaded with leafy greens, root crops, and even a few herbs that are ready for harvest and use in the kitchen. Following is a list of cold hardy vegetables that are ideal for fall production or extended harvests:
- Kale and Collards
- Spinach and Lettuce
- Turnips and Rutabagas
- Mustard Greens
- Beets and Carrots
- Broccoli and Cauliflower
- Mache and Cress
- Brussels Sprouts
- Swiss Chard
Many of the hardy vegetables on this list will actually survive the winter months to send up new growth next spring. Root crops should be harvested before they become soft or develop woody cores in the springtime, but the leafy greens such as kale and spinach will produce additional spring harvests when allowed to over winter in the garden.
Adding Cover and Protective Devices to the Fall Garden
Finally, with just a little extra effort you can reap extended harvests by adding protective devices to shelter the garden and provide a few degrees worth of protection to those already hardy crops. For root crops a thick mulch of straw or shredded leaves is all that’s needed to make it easier to harvest the bounty even after the ground begins to freeze during winter.
Straw, leaves, or floating row covers can also be spread over beds of lettuce or leafy greens to help them over winter and add a little protection to tender young plants. For larger, more mature plants try using low hoop tunnels covered with greenhouse plastic, or cold frames.
These devices won’t keep plants actively growing throughout the winter but will help hold them in harvestable condition despite freezing temperatures. So try your hand at growing a fall garden and you’ll be rewarded with fresh produce for the winter holidays!