Fall gardens in the South
The allure of homegrown tomatoes leads many of us to plant summer gardens.
Fall gardens have no such motivator to send food lovers back to the earth. After a tiring season of battling weeds, blight and bugs, some gardeners hang up their trowels until next year.
Yet giving up on a fall garden means missing the best time of year to grow vegetables, especially in the South. Weeds are fading, bugs waning and thereís much less humidity to spread fungus and disease. Of course, this assumes your garden is safe from deer, rabbits and other four-legged nibblers. But more on that later.
A few weeks ago I went to a fall gardening seminar with Farmer D, known for his pork-pie hats and organic practices, and Souper Jenny, an Atlanta chef and actress known for the delicious, hearty soups she serves at her namesake restaurant. Jenny provided the land, a sunny spot in the front yard of her ranch house where Farmer D had placed some raised beds for a summer garden. D brought the seedlings, compost and encouragement.
He ran through some of the basics, such as making and using compost, and when to fertilize. He talked about the importance of cover crops, which restore nutrients such as nitrogen to the soil of fallow gardens. He rattled off the names of fall standards, such as turnips, kale, radishes, lettuce, arugula, carrots, garlics and onions.
I thought about last yearís fall garden, a mass of lettuce and arugula that dwindled to nothing, fennel planted with much hope to no avail, collards that bore one tiny crop in late spring, and a pumpkin vine that sprawled 20 feet and grew just one lousy gourd that rotted on the ground before harvest. Iíd gladly trade months of pleasant gardening weather and poor harvests for a miserably hot, bug-filled summer that at least rewards me with tomatoes, basil and the occasional red bell pepper.
Still, Farmer D was encouraging. As he and Jenny planted the 4-by-8 beds, he talked about the cost savings of growing your own and she shared ways to use herbs and winter vegetables in cooking. Experienced gardeners can save a lot of money by raising produce, he said. I thought about my typical experience: Spending a lot on raised beds, seedlings and dirt, without much to show for it.
Yet hope persists as stubbornly as the sprig of last yearís fennel thatís sprouting anew this fall. Maybe this would be my year to harvest enough lettuce to at least get one salad.
I asked a lot of questions trying to figure out what went wrong last year, and came away with some ideas: The raised beds should contain dirt to a depth of 8 inches, rather than a scant 6; the soil needed analyzing to see if it lacked key nutrients; and the soil needed enrichment from more compost and perhaps some organic fertilizer.
We added another layer of bricks to the raised beds, dumped in more dirt, planted the seedlings and hoped. Six weeks later, everything is thriving. Romaine lettuce is large enough for harvesting individual leaves, and arugula is ready for the plate. Carrot seeds have sent up feathery fronds. Red leaf lettuce is jostling with fallen hickory leaves for sun. And last yearís fennel holdover just keeps getting larger.
The one thing the garden is missing: Four-legged pests. As it turns out, we may have solved some of our problems unintentionally this spring when we fenced off the beds with chicken wire to keep out puppies who loved their soft dirt. The barrier kept out not only the puppies, but also some longstanding marauders, including chipmunks, squirrels and voracious rabbits.
Was it bad soil or bad bunnies? Iím not sure. I do know this: In a few days Iíll be eating the first salad from the garden, topped with the last of the summer tomatoes. Sometimes it pays to take another chance.