It's hot out, which means it's time to plant the fall garden. The fall garden has always been the most challenging for us, not only because we're planting in the dog days of summer but the bugs eat up the new seedlings, the weeds compete for space and nutrients and additional watering is needed to get things started and keep plants growing.
We practice no-till gardening. Not tilling the soil maintains the soil biodiversity and top soil health. If you have the luxury of time, this Mother Earth News article is a great way to get started on no-till. In all honesty, this is the first year we're barely ahead of the game in terms of preparing the soil for our fall garden, so we're sharing with you our shortcut method.
Preparing your soil
Weed and grass competition is the first thing we focus on. 3-4 weeks before planting we lay down cardboard to help kill the weeds and grass - if you can, do this step a few months ahead of time, it'll make the rest of the steps easier.
Initially we were using small cardboard boxes, but it took forever to cut them, remove tape and lay them out. It also took a lot of work to keep them from blowing away in one of our summer storms. Then we asked the owner of a locally owned appliance store if we could take some boxes off his hands. He was more than happy to let us take them because he has to pay to dispose of them. The large fridge and freezer boxes are awesome! One box cut open will cover about 10x6ft.
Before laying out the cardboard, I mow close to the ground and if it hasn't rained much recently I give the ground a good soak. I use step-in posts to keep the cardboard in place. Step-in posts are used for portable electric fence, but they make great anchors too. You can find them at your farm supply store for about $2.
4-5 days before we're ready to plant, we pull up the cardboard and use a rake to clear off the dead grass and weeds. This can be hard work with normal rake, especially if the cardboard has only been in place for a few weeks. This year we forked out on a hand-forged seed bed rake from DeWit. Yes, it's more expensive than a big box rake, but the the longer handle makes work much easier on my back (I'm 6ft3) and it uproots and cultivates better and quicker than any rake I've used. You can find DeWit hand tools at Country Farm & Home in Pittsboro, NC, or you can order online from Earth Tools and they will ship one straight to your door.
When the seed bed has been cultivated, we add some compost, mix it in and cover it back up with the cardboard until we're ready to plant. If the soil is compacted, we usually loosen the soil with a broadfork, especially for root vegetables.
What to plant and when to plant your fall garden
What and when to plant will vary depending on your plant hardiness zone. For zone 7, we have planted a variety of vegetables. We are expanding the diversity of crops this year. We've found that we have more luck if we plant fewer of a lot of vegetables than a lot of a few vegetables.
This years fall garden will include beans, beets, carrots, swiss chard, collards, dill, kale. kohlrabi, lettuce, okra, onions, black-eyed peas, radishes and turnips. If you're looking for a great source of open pollinated and organic seed, we highly recommend Sow True Seed. If you use this link you will get a 5$ coupon from Sow True Seed and we'll get one too when you make a purchase.
We thank and honor enslaved Africans for bringing black-eyed peas (aka cow peas) and okra with them to what is now America. They braided them into their hair to bring them aboard slave ships. Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas cooked with a smoked pigs foot) is eaten by many - including us - on New Years Day to bring good fortune to the new year. Black-eyed peas are rich in Vitamins A, C and B6, folate (very high), thiamine and riboflavin. Okra provides, vitamins B6, C, and K, folate, calcium and manganese.
For timing the planting, we follow the old-time method of planting during the most auspicious time during the lunar cycle. Without getting too technical (we recommend the book Raising With the Moon if you want to learn all the ins and outs) you basically seed above ground crops while the moon is growing and root veg and onions while the moon is shrinking. The second factor is which sign the moon is in, again too technical to get into here. Following the most auspicious lunar times, we plan on sowing above ground crops on July 27 and 28 and again on Aug 23 and 24, root veg and onions will be planted August 14-16 in 2020. You can use this as a general guide as well. We have had better and healthier crops since we started planting by the moon last year.
Giving the garden a fighting chance
In our experience, the abundance of heat, bugs and weeds this time of year make the fall garden the most challenging to grow. We have adopted a technique which we think improves our chances but I can't really recommend it yet because we haven't applied it for an entire growing season. Having said that, I will share it, but please use your best judgement for your specific circumstances and weather.
Once we have sown the seed, we will water lightly and then cover them with cardboard. The theory is that the cardboard will help retain moisture in the soil and give us a better germination rate and protect the tender shoots from hungry bugs. This has worked for our winter, spring and summer gardens, but I am a bit more wary of using this method when sowing at the height of summer. The heat retention under the cardboard may be enough to kill the seedling. This may not be as big of an issue if your garden is partially shaded, but our plot gets full sun most of the day. When trying any new technique for the first time, we have learned to always balance our approach. We will cover 1/3 of the seeds with cardboard and the other 2/3 with old window screens from the farmhouse. Although the screens may not retain as much soil moisture as the cardboard, they will protect the seedlings from bugs and I will be able to water directly through the screen to keep them hydrated which is especially important during germination. Once I remove the cardboard, I will cover the remaining seedlings with the screens as well.
I will update this post once I have witnessed how each method works. Good luck with your fall garden! Please let us know how it works out and if you adopt any of these techniques, how they worked for you by commenting on the post.
Keep Grazing Against The Machine! - Mike
Update August 8, 2020
I decided only to cover the seed bed with window screens. After thinking about it, the cardboard not only helps retain moisture, but it also helps heat the soil to encourage germination. This is of course important in the spring when soil temperatures are low, but this time of the year we have plenty of heat. So far that seems to have been the right decision. We sowed black-eyed peas, beans, okra, lettuce, dill, parsley and snow peas on July 28th and as of this morning, peas and beans have germinated well. I expect the rest will follow in the coming week.
We are also in the process of harvesting the rest of the potatoes this week. Potatoes need to cure at the ideal temperature and humidity. We don't have the right temperature or humidity in the farmhouse so we decided to leave them in the ground because it seems to have the ideal conditions. We have only been harvesting enough for 2 or 3 meals at a time. We have been trying to figure out what are the best vegetables to rotate into a potato plot and after much research we found a really valuable and easy to use crop rotation guide at the Royal Horticultural Society. Based on their advice, we are going to plant beans, onions, beets, radishes, carrots and later this fall, garlic into the potato plot.
If you're planning your fall garden, be sure to buy your seeds soon. With Covid19 there are a lot more people growing their own food and we've noticed seeds selling out earlier in the season. We primarily buy from Sow True Seed because we have get excellent germination rates and they have a wide variety of open-pollinated and organic seed. We also buy from Johnny's Selected Seed if Sow True are out of stock.
If you use this link you will get a 5$ coupon from Sow True Seed and we'll get one too when you make a purchase.