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Marin IJ Articles

A Green Autumn

  • Jennifer Kinion
  • Here’s some good news for you gardeners lamenting the end of the summer growing season: there’s no need to put your vegetable garden to bed for the winter. After you pull up the last tomato cage and harvest the last jalapeno pepper, grab a shovel or trowel and prepare the bed for a productive autumn. You can start a variety of fabulous greens from seed during the warm days remaining in early October, then reap home-grown crops all through the fall.

    Direct seeding is a great boon for busy people who don’t have the time, inclination, or space to coddle trays of germinating seeds. And you can skip what can be a time-consuming step; transplanting young plants from seeding trays to the spot where they will grow and mature. If you start your greens now, you can enjoy their jewel-like beauty in your garden throughout fall and even into the holiday season.

    Pick the sunniest spot you have, and make sure to amend your soil with compost or aged manure first. After amending, rake the soil smooth and water it thoroughly. Then leave it undisturbed for a day or two to allow the amended soil to settle. The goal is to start your seeds in soil that is uniform in texture and slightly moist, but not soggy. Pay close attention to the seed spacing, depth, and thinning instructions on each seed packet. If you aren’t a good judge of depth, use a waterproof ruler or a bulb trowel with depth markings on the blade to measure the depth you are planting your seeds, as this factor can make all the difference between successful germination and failure.
    To speed germination and protect seedbeds from drying out, consider using floating row cover, a woven fabric available in most garden centers. This fabric is used to cover and protect plants while allowing air, light, and water to permeate. You plant the seeds, and then place lengths of the row cover directly on the soil surface in the seeded areas. Secure the cover with landscape staples, bricks or rocks. While you watch and wait for germination to happen, water the seedbed right through the fabric.
    When the seedlings emerge, you can leave the row cover in place or remove it. If you leave the row cover on, check regularly to make sure the emerging plant stems aren’t struggling to lengthen beneath the fabric. If you find this happening, you can adjust your anchors to allow more space between the soil and the fabric for your seedlings to occupy. Leaving the cover in place can improve yields, because it protects the new green growth from birds and some insects.
    After seedlings emerge, mulch with chipped bark, straw, or compost to conserve moisture, inhibit weeds, and protect roots. Also take the time to fertilize two or three times during the season with diluted fish emulsion or vermicompost tea from your worm bin. Thin plants to the spacing recommended to ensure that plants aren’t competing for nutrition, water, and space.
    The following vegetables are good choices for direct seeding. With most of the plants on this list, you can enjoy greens well into the late fall if you resist the urge to harvest whole plants. Each time you harvest, clip the outermost leaves, leaving most of the plant intact. The plant will continue to grow and develop more leaves as the season progresses. You’ll know the show is over when your crops begin to flower. This is when the leaves tend to get tough and can develop a bitter flavor.
    We can grow chard all year here in the Bay Area, and it is available in a kaleidoscope of colors, making it a great ornamental as well as edible plant. Trimmed chard leaves can substitute for head cabbage leaves in cabbage roll recipes. Try ‘Bright Lights’ for the beauty of its red, yellow, and orange veined leaves, or ‘Charlotte’ for its mild, mellow flavor.
    Broccoli Rabe
    Broccoli Rabe (also called Rapini or Broccoli di Rapa) is a bit less challenging to grow than heads of broccoli. It has a loose growing habit and multiple stems, like a kale with little florets. Broccoli Rabe is a tasty side dish for Italian menus. Varieties to try include ‘Super Rapini’ and ‘Novatina.’
    Kale is available in a wide variety of colors ranging from red, to blue-green, to purple. The rippled leaves of ‘Lacinato’ kale are especially sturdy and cold tolerant. This is a good crop to carry you through fall into winter, as colder weather tends to sweeten the flavor of kale. Kale leaves are especially good in bean stew or minestrone. Slugs, snails, and cabbageworms like kale, so keep and eye out and hand pick them off plants if you see them.
    Pak Choi
    The mild, succulent stems and leaves of pak choi can be eaten raw or cooked. If you pay careful attention to seed spacing and plant pak choi in quantity, you’ll pull enough tiny plants at thinning time to make a stir fry, leaving adequate spacing for the remainder to mature to full size before harvesting. This green is a good choice for those who like fast returns on their efforts, as pak choi can be ready for harvest in about 45 days.
    Cooked or raw, spinach is as versatile as it is lovely. The sturdier, larger-leaved varieties, such as ‘Oriental Giant’ and ‘Giant Winter’ fare well in cold winter.
    All of these greens are great freshly picked, thoroughly washed and dried, and then quickly sautéed in a skillet with olive oil, thinly sliced garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes.