The first hard frost of fall has come. I think it happened here on October 24. I can’t say for sure because I was in Ohio visiting family. I knew the seasons would be changing in the eight days I would be gone. In preparation for leaving I was busy cleaning up the garden, which goes hand in hand with building compost piles, and planting cover crops. When I returned on October 30 the leaves on the trees had changed colors and the newly planted cover crop seeds had sprouted.
When the first hard frost comes in the fall, everything changes in the garden. The pepper plants that were so lush the day before are now wilted, along with so many other warm weather crops. That doesn’t mean your garden is finished for the season, however. This is the time for the cold weather crops to take center stage. I look forward to the frost bringing out the sweetness in the carrots and greens. In fact, I don’t worry about growing carrots to harvest in the summer anymore because we are so spoiled with the ones we have in the cold months. For the next six months we will have sweet carrots fresh from the garden. I’ve previously written about how I grow my winter carrots.
Other fall and winter crops that we eat fresh from the garden are beets, Jerusalem artichokes, collards, kale, chard, and parsley. There are more root crops that I could add to the list, if I had grown them this year. Those crops are turnips, Daikon radish, and kohlrabi. No doubt, some of my readers could add more choices. With onions and garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and peanuts from stored harvests, there is a wealth of food one can eat without further preservation. Our winters here in Zone 7 are not so mild that we don’t need protection for the greens if we want to have a continual harvest. Even at that, picking once a week is what to expect, and less frequently during the weeks of the least daylight, so more area needs to be planted for winter harvest than needed for a spring planting.
I don’t cover the carrots and beets with anything so as not to encourage voles to move in. They are planted early enough to be mature now, so only need to be held in cold storage in the soil. For protection from harsh winter weather for the greens I use low tunnels made from plastic pipe and old greenhouse plastic. This type of cover is easy to erect. The ½” plastic pipe can be inserted into larger size plastic pipe stuck in the ground or put over pieces of rebar. The rebar and larger plastic pipe is cut to 2’ lengths and put half in and half out of the ground. If you leave rebar in the ground without a hoop over it, be sure to cover it with a plastic bottle, piece of plastic pipe, or an old tennis ball. You don’t want anyone to get hurt if they stumble upon it. You can find rebar precut to various lengths in the building supply stores near the cement blocks. Plastic pipe comes in 10’ lengths. I cut it to 8’ to form a hoop over a 4’ wide bed. These pipe structures also have a pipe across the top and a cord (anchored to the bottom of the hoops) that goes over the plastic cover to keep it in place. More details about that are at my blog post Managing a Cold Frame, Low Tunnel, or Mini-greenhouse. The plastic is held to the end hoops with clips made especially for that purpose. They are nice to have.
Having this bounty of food available in my garden all winter is the result of careful planning done sometimes a year in advance. To have the cabbage family greens at a good size now is sometimes a challenge, since they would have been started during hot weather. I have to keep a vigilant watch to pick off cabbage worms and harlequin bugs during those weeks. The seeds are started in the coldframe, not because they need protection, but because the coldframes are my seed starting areas. I do, however, sometimes cover the coldframe with a shadecloth if the weather is too hot and sunny. Once established, the best plants are transplanted to the garden beds. The winter covers don’t go on until cold weather hits. I’m just now bringing the covers out. A big advantage of using this type of low cover, rather than a greenhouse, is that the covers are easily added, removed, or vented, allowing the plants to get the full benefit of the natural climate, including the rain.
If you don’t have this variety of food available in your garden after the frost, and would like to, start making notes now and work on your garden plan to make it happen next year. Go ahead and prepare a bed and put a cover on it now, or at least put up the hoops and be ready for a cover. In late winter you can use it to get off to an early start. Put the cover on two weeks before your planting time to warm the soil. When my community college students planned a season extension structure for their projects, many of them constructed their designs, but put in transplants and seeds too late for a fall or winter harvest. However, often they found they had a very early spring harvest from those plants, especially with things like spinach. If you have the time and inclination to prepare now, it will put you one step ahead for early planting next spring.