Backyard harvest: Transitioning from summer to fall in the veggie garden

Peppers may be looking bedraggled, but often are at their most productive in early fall. Photo: Guinevere Higgins Peppers may be looking bedraggled, but often are at their most productive in early fall. Photo: Guinevere Higgins

That fall feeling is here. The morning air is crisp, autumn blooms like yellow crownbeard and native asters dot the roadsides, and our vegetable gardens are in transition. The tomatoes are looking bedraggled—perhaps due to blight, perhaps to infestations of stink bugs—the cucumbers are kaput, and cravings for slow-cooked greens and butternut squash soup begin to take the place of our need for Caprese salad and fresh salsa. But don’t give up on the summer garden just yet!

Your tomatoes, peppers, and basil may look a little rough, but if they’re hanging on and seem to be ripening new fruit (and you don’t need the space for fall plantings), consider letting them be for now—they often perk up as temperatures drop a bit. Leathery basil will benefit from being cut back by a third to encourage the growth of new tender leaves, and I find that fall-harvested sweet peppers tend to be the best of the season. Tomato quality diminishes once the weather gets truly cool, but plan to let the last of your fruits blush on the vine before harvest before placing them in a sunny spot indoors to finish ripening.

If a fall garden isn’t in the cards for you, or if your garden is so large that you still have empty beds after fall planting, consider planting a cover crop. Cover crops protect soil from erosion and nutrient loss over the winter, and can help with weed and disease suppression while maintaining precious relationships between plants and soil microorganisms through the cold months. And when cultivated into the soil or composted in spring, they add heaps of vital organic matter. Popular and easy to grow, cover crops include Austrian winter peas (adds nitrogen), winter rye (helps suppress weed growth), and Daikon radish (helps loosen compacted soils and kill soil-borne pathogens).

If you still have open beds after fall planting and cover cropping, plant garlic. Be sure to order your bulbs now, as supplies from most growers are running low. Check Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s online catalog to see what varieties they have left. I am partial to hardneck garlic; the large, easy-to-peel cloves are wonderful to cook with, and they have the added bonus of providing a late spring “scape” or flower stalk, which is delicious sautéed or whizzed up into garlic scape pesto. Whatever variety you choose, plan to amend your garlic bed with plenty of compost and plant in late October or early November, and mulch your garlic beds after shoots emerge to protect from cold winter temperatures and wind. Plan on a June or early July harvest.

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