In most places, August is the busiest month on the farm or in the garden. Most growers are picking tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, melons, and other summer crops this month. Winter squash may be starting to mature, and onions and garlic may be drying for winter storage. And, of course, it's time to plant fall crops.
Many vegetables can be sown now to mature during the next two months, when the cooler weather of autumn will improve their flavor and quality. These include beets, carrots, escarole, endive, greens, kale and collards, kohlrabi, lettuce, bunching onions, peas, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnips.
The success of the fall garden depends on two key factors:
- Getting those cool-loving plants to germinate and grow during the hot days of late summer;
- Protecting them from occasional light frosts in fall for a long season of harvest.
Getting fall plants started
Many plants that thrive in cool weather will nevertheless germinate just fine in hot weather. Beets, carrots, chard, lettuce, onions, radishes, and turnips will all germinate at soil temperatures of 85°-95°F/29.4°-35°C (though their optimum germination temperatures are about 10° cooler). Those that require 80°F/27° for germination include escarole, endive, kale and kohlrabi. Spinach germinates best at 45°-75°F/7.2°-24°C, and grows best with temperatures in the 60s.
Because of these different requirements, varieties should be grouped according to their germination requirements. The first group, which will germinate in the heat, can be planted together with no special precautions. Beets, carrots, peas, radishes, and turnips can be direct-seeded in the garden. Swiss chard, lettuce, and onions can be direct-seeded or started in plug trays for transplanting later.
The plants that need cooler temperatures should get some extra attention. One strategy is to cool the soil by watering it thoroughly in the evening, and then hanging shade cloth on hoops over the bed the next morning. The shade cloth will cool the soil and after a few days, seeds can be sown in the evening, then watered again. Another strategy is to pre-sprout the seeds: soak overnight in a jar of water, then put the jar in the refrigerator for a few days, turning it daily. The germinated seeds require careful handling during planting, and frequent watering after that to keep them from drying out.
Spinach can be the trickiest crop of all to get established outside in fall. Even if you can get the seed to germinate, spinach is susceptible to bolting during hot weather if it gets stressed by dry soil or crowding. Thin seedlings and keep the spinach bed well-weeded and watered. The sweet flavor and crisp texture of fall spinach will be your reward.
For all fall crops, daytime watering is essential for the first month. Plan to drip irrigate, sprinkle or mist the fall crops every day that it doesn't rain.
Keeping them going
If you can get fall crops up and thriving by the end of September, you're well on the way to a bountiful harvest. Don't let a surprise early frost take out your plants. As soon as the weather turns cool, put hoops over your beds and be ready to pull row cover over the hoops whenever the forecast is for temperatures in the 30s.
Row cover is available in different weights, and you'll find a good explanation of the differences in the Tools and Supplies section of Johnny's catalog. There's also a video about using row cover on Johnny's website, www.johnnyseeds.com. If your weather in autumn tends to swing from hot to cool for several weeks, you may want to anchor row cover with sandbags or T-posts so you more easily remove it during hot spells. If your weather cools down and stays cool, you can bury the edges of the row cover in soil and leave it over the plants.
Fall in the hoophouse
All the fall crops mentioned above can be grown in an unheated hoophouse for several months longer than in the field. Succession plant these crops for several weeks or plant a larger quantity that can be harvested into the winter. Depending on where you live, you may also be able to grow additional crops in fall in the unheated hoophouse. Beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and pac choi may reach maturity if you start them soon. A hoophouse planted now can supply a great selection of vegetables all the way till Thanksgiving.
Some cold-hardy crops can even be harvested all winter. For more information about growing in winter, see Eliot Coleman's new book The Winter Harvest Handbook.
Update your market display
An axiom of retail merchandising is that after September 1, it's autumn. It doesn't matter if the weather is still hot and leaves won't change color for another month. Nor does it matter that the start of autumn is officially three weeks away. Once the kids are back in school, and the days get noticeably shorter, people want to celebrate the change of seasons.
For growers who sell at a farm stand or farmers market, September is a good time to revitalize your display and emphasize the transition from summer into fall. That doesn't mean your product selection is going to change overnight; you'll still have summer vegetables, and people will still want to buy them. But, you can change the overall appearance of your stand just by adding a few new items, and placing them front and center to attract attention. Here are some ideas for giving your displays an autumnal theme that will appeal to customers ready to welcome the new season.
- Bring in some straw or hay bales. Nothing says "fall harvest" like bales, plus they make handy risers for displaying produce and plants.
- Put pumpkins around the stand (even if just a few at this point), and put winter squash and pie pumpkins in a prominent position, perhaps spilling out of an overturned basket.
- After your sweet corn is harvested, cut the plants and gather them into a few shocks simply for decoration. You may find that people want to buy them for their own front yards.
- If you have onions and garlic, make some braids to hang from your canopy. Again, people may want to buy the braids; you can either get busy braiding, or sell the ingredients along with instructions. Here's a well-illustrated website and a good video.
- If you sell flowers, make some big, autumnal bouquets in colors of gold, orange, and bronze. A big bucket of sunflowers will look seasonal, too.
- Brussels sprouts make a big impact when you sell some as whole stems. To get the sprouts to be uniform for whole-stem harvest, you should "top" or pinch out the growing point at the top of the plant when the lower sprouts are 1/2"-3/4" in diameter. A full stem will develop in four weeks. You can treat some of your plants this way, and leave some untopped to provide a longer harvest period.
- Stimulate summer vegetable sales with recipe cards featuring hearty autumn dishes such as soups and roasted vegetables. Encourage customers to buy larger amounts for freezing, and give them advice on how to do it. For example, provide a pesto recipe and suggest freezing it in an ice-cube tray for flavoring soups and stews in winter.
- Start seeds now for plants to sell in a few weeks, including arugula, lettuces, salad greens, kale, parsley, and cilantro.
Too many tomatoes? Maybe you should make salsa. Beautiful herbs? Herbal oils and vinegars might sell well. The bumper crop of peppers? Perhaps you can sell them roasted. Value-added products such as these are popular items at farmer's markets and local stores, and they can increase revenue and extend the selling season for many farms.
Getting into value-added products takes research, planning and, in some cases, specialized training and certification. It all depends on what kind of product you want to make.
Most processed foods have to be made in a commercial kitchen that has been inspected and certified by a state or local health department. Some states may make an exception for farmer's market vendors, though, so the first place to check on requirements is with your farmer's market manager. Even if you don't need to use a commercial kitchen, you might prefer to rent one because the work will go faster with appropriate equipment. Many churches, restaurants, and other small food processors are willing to rent their kitchens, so check around locally. Renting a kitchen is also a good way to test market a product. If it flies, and you enjoy the work, you can think about building your own commercial kitchen later.
The next step is to learn recommended food safety practices for making your product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition publishes Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for food processors. Those recommendations can be found on the FDA website.
Another resource is your state Cooperative Extension Service, which may be able to provide you with specific instructions for making a product, as well as help you meet labeling requirements.
If you are considering low-acid foods such as soups, you need to attend the Better Processing Control School, which is held several times a year. Again, Extension can help you find the training.
As for peppers, chile roasters are appearing at farmers markets everywhere. The price of a propane-fired chile roaster ranges from about $300 for a small, tabletop hand-cranked model to $3,000 for a large model on wheels with an electric motor. Although they can increase the value of peppers significantly, they usually need an extra employee to tend them at market, and they have to be thoroughly cleaned before and after use. They may need special licenses because of the open flame, and roasted chiles may even be banned in some places because of food contamination concerns. Check with your local health department for any regulations that may apply.