Vegetable gardening seems like the perfect healthy hobby. You get to go outdoors, get some fresh air, and work with nature to grow something you can eat. You’re taking control over your diet from the ground up, literally, all with a little packet of seeds. So inspired, you plant some kohlrabi in your yard.
Weeks later, you’ve got a bunch of German turnips on your hands and no idea what to do with them. Dona Lee, a certified master gardener with the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, says there are a few things to consider before you plant a single vegetable in your fall/winter garden.
The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia is a volunteer group based in Arlington and Alexandria that works with the Virginia Cooperative Extension to teach seasonal gardening principles, harvesting techniques, soil conditions, and garden management. The first thing to understand, Lee says, is fall and winter gardening itself.
What and When to Grow in Fall
Fall and winter gardening consists of four types of crops. Lee says these are “crops you can harvest just before frost—or just after. There are crops you can ‘overwinter’ and harvest in the spring and early summer. It’s also the idea of extending the season by using row covers, cold frames or greenhouses. Last, it’s planting cover crops to improve your soil.”
Fall crops fall into three categories: cole crops (like broccoli, cabbage, bok choy), greens (leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula) and root crops (beets, parsnips, carrots). Plants from the Allium Family, the type Lee calls “plant and forget,” include garlic, shallots and leeks.
As the temperature drops in the fall, the combination of warm soil with the cooler temperatures and higher moisture levels, along with fewer insects and weeds, helps fresh vegetables grow longer. “Before you start with plant variety, think about what you want to eat,” warns Lee. “The other thing to consider is the time you can commit so you’re not overwhelmed. You also need to think about temperature hardiness of the plant and days to reach maturity.”
Temperature hardiness measures a plant’s ability to survive light frost. “Frost will damage the leaves because the water inside them freezes, and you might lose a portion of the plant or it may not be suitable for eating,” says Lee. This is called a “killing frost,” which happens twice a year.
In Northern Virginia, the last killing frost typically falls between April 1 and April 10; the first killing frost falls between November 1 and November 10. These determine your planting dates.
Plants that can survive a light freeze (29-32 degrees) are half-hardy varieties. Those that survive a moderate freeze (25-28 degrees) are hardy varieties. Overwintering crops can survive a hard freeze (24 degrees or cooler).
Here are a couple of plants from each category, along with pointers on when to plant and harvest them.
Half-Hardy: Beets & Peas
You can plant beets after the first killing frost, by the end of August up to the middle of September. They can be harvested mid-October and throughout the rest of the season. They can also be planted toward the end of March through the end of April, and harvested toward the end of May through the middle of July.
Plant peas in March, before the last killing frost, anytime during the month of March. Peas can be harvested two weeks after they are first planted, between the end of April and the beginning of June.
Hardy: Carrots & Collards
If you can squeeze it in, plant carrots now, and harvest right before the first killing frost, beginning in September and through the rest of the season. If you don’t have time to plant carrots today, you can plant them before the last killing frost, in the middle of March through the end of April. They can be harvested toward the end of May and through the middle of June.
Collards can be planted in August, and through the middle of September. Harvesting can begin after the middle of October and throughout the rest of the season. Or you can plant them in March and harvest toward the end of May.
Overwintering: Spinach & Garlic
Spinach can be planted beginning in September, and through the first week in October, then harvested toward the end of October and throughout the rest of the season. It can also be planted in the month of March and harvested starting in April until the end of May.
Garlic can be planted toward the middle or end of October, or toward the end of April. Garlic scapes (smaller, tender garlic “buds”) can be harvested in the spring and the fully-grown garlic can be harvested in the summer.
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