I am done with summer. This has been an odd year in my garden, and the summer’s crops are just not faring very well. Maybe it’s the lack of winter rains, maybe it’s the lack of summer heat; we’ve had barely a week of weather hotter than 100 degrees, and it’s August already.
Oh sure, I still have a dozen pepper plants and another dozen tomato plants, all in various stages of health, but they came late this year — and my okra and melons are only beginning to do their thing. My beans have not done well at all, much to my astonishment. I thought beans were indestructible. Guess not. It has been frustrating.
Cool mornings and a certain change in the light has shifted my attention to autumn, where I can make a new start. I know it sounds odd, thinking of fall as a time of beginnings, but it really is in my little green world.
I have always been a better fall and winter gardener, and I suspect this has something to do with the fact that I am fall and winter person. I prefer a chilly day with scudding clouds and the smell of rain in the air to the crystalline summer days we get here, at least when the air isn’t smoky from fires. Plants are more attuned to us than most realize, and thus far my green friends have rewarded my attentions.
But planting a fall garden means turning under hot weather crops, or leaving space open to give the autumn garden a head start. This is what prevents most gardeners from even trying. Who can honestly say they would pull a tomato plant in August to make way for cabbages or beets? I can, but it has only come with time.
It is my experience that the love of cold-weather vegetables is a rarer thing than those who savor summer’s bounty. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, basil and melons are all easy to love — and more importantly, are easy to prepare. Does a tomato really ever need more than salt and possibly a drizzle of olive oil?
But fall vegetables, now they require finesse. Fall vegetables require a cook to know a little something about how to properly prepare them, else they withhold their gifts. This is why most people have only one or two recipes for veggies like cabbage or beets, and none at all for the more obscure delights of colder weather. I could eat chicories and lettuces and beets and cabbages, chard and kale and onions all winter long. And I do.
That’s the thing: A well thought-out autumn garden offers more variety than those of summer, and it occupies less space. Only cabbages or onion patches truly domineer in the cold-weather garden. By way of example, here is what I have planned for this fall and winter:
- Greens: Matador spinach, mache, lettuces, Gigante parsley, stridolo, Italian red chicory, minutina, escarole, frisee, garden cress and arugula.
- Cabbage-y things: Broccoli raab, Pasqualino savoy cabbages and Tuscan black kale.
- Radicchio and Treviso chicories
- Chiogga and golden beets
- Fava beans
- Sugar peas
- More Roots: Italian turnips, Nantes carrots, Scornozera (a type of oyster plant) and an odd Italian root chicory.
- Muscari bulbs from Puglia
- Lots of garlic and leeks
I already have Swiss chard and wild arugula growing. There will be more, too. I am planning a Japanese vegetable garden with things like kintsai and edible chrysanthemums, about which I will write more soon.
But to do all this right, I need to start now. Some things, like the radicchio and the Treviso, need to get established by September. I then cut them to the ground and when they regrow in cooler weather, they regrow that beautiful scarlet they’re known for and will then hold in the ground all winter.
Root veggies require their time in the sun, too. Scornozera, which I have never grown before this year, needs a long time in the soil. So do beets and carrots if you want large ones. Who knows about this funny root chicory? I will report back from time to time on its progress.
So I am digging in the heat these days, pulling weeds and mixing compost. But I am not without company.