In southeastern Virginia, we’re lucky to have a long growing season, and we actually have two cool growing seasons: in the spring and again in the fall. Since the average date of the first frost is November 21 (my honey’s birthday – easy to remember!), we can plant from seed now and harvest into November. We will actually harvest some hardy greens and root vegetables next spring.
Last week, I went to a lecture by Portsmouth Master Gardener Fred Hersey at the Churchland Library in Portsmouth. Here are my notes from that lecture, embellished with a few tips of my own; we don’t eat cooking greens like collards and mustard greens, so I didn’t take notes on those.
Again, we have two goals for the fall garden:
- Eat during the fall – carrots, parsnips, green beans, peas, salad and other greens
- Grow through the winter – greens, spinach, arugula, garlic, onions
Check seed packages for for their maturity date and count backwards from first frost. There are now about 60 days left, so bush snap beans, peas, etc., that will mature in less than 60 days can be planted now.
If we don’t get several days in a row of hard frost, we can plant these crops and they will thrive through the winter: greens like Swiss chard, lettuce and arugula and root crops like carrots, parsnips, garlic and onions.
Root crops need loose, well-drained soil so they can grow, and you can leave them in the ground until you want to use them. If you need to get them out of the ground, you can put them in a container of sand, root end down, for storage.
Once you decide what to grow, the next step is to prepare the soil for planting and add nutrients. It’s ideal to have a soil test done by Virginia Tech that will tell you what the pH is and the levels of particular nutrients in your soil, like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus; you can get a quick test done at some garden centers which will only tell you the pH. If you can’t do that in time, it’s okay; just make sure you fertilize properly. The Virginia Tech test costs $10 for in-state testing; you can get a test kit and instructions at any Virginia Cooperative Extension office.
Moisten soil the day before planting and rake or till it up, depending on how large your space is. Mushroom compost is a good choice for fertilizer. You can buy it from Norfolk County Feed & Seed and probably other garden centers. If you use something other than compost for fertilizing, look for something with a low first number (nitrogen) for fruiting plants like beans and peas, since nitrogen increases foliage growth and can inhibit fruiting. Use a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content for leafy vegetables like salad greens, collards, etc.
Fertilize when planting, then side-dress about three weeks later, and then once a month. Root crops in particular are heavy feeders, so they will need nutrients during the growing season. Plant seeds deeper than you would in the spring; the soil is already warm. You can also get a head start by buying transplants from a garden center.
If you have insect problems, try an organic insect control like hot pepper spray or insecticidal soap. Using a general insecticide like Sevin will harm pollinators like bees and butterflies and other beneficial insects like ladybugs.
A few notes specific to garlic:
- Don’t fertilizer after May 15, because you will harvest them in June
- Can cut scapes (flower stalks) off when they’re 10 inches long or have a loop in them; cut up and add to skillet dishes or soups/stews
- Don’t pull – you don’t want the cloves to come apart. Dig them out.
- Don’t wash garlic heads (or onions); skins will pull off easily once they’re cured/dried. Set on a basket, for air circulation, out of the sun for a month to cure
So let’s get gardening! It’s easier than you think.