With the arrival of fall it is time to harvest the last of the summer vegetables in the garden, set up protection for the fall greens recently planted, and put in over-wintering cover crops. And finally, sow garlic by the end of October in well-prepared beds for the bulbs’ long winter growth.
The tender fall greens planted in late August should be well-established by now: endive and romaine lettuces, broccoli raab, arugula, miner’s lettuce, mache, and red Italian dandelion. They will require a minimum of protection by a hoop house of floating row cover, to keep off the wind and cold, and to provide just enough added heat to offer snippets of fresh salad and stir-fry. I also protect a bushy row of mature curly parsley under a sturdy wire hut of sheep fencing, again covered with row cover for warmth, yet letting in the sun and the rain. Other possibilities include late fall harvests of large Asian daikon or dense Black Spanish radishes that were sown in mid-summer.
Rodent damage was particularly prevalent this year, so some kind of preventive measures are needed around your fall and over-wintering hoop gardens, whether mechanical traps, patrolling cats or rat terriers, or as a last resort, poison bait. Choose your weapon, but be prepared to defend your tender greens and other crops left exposed to the elements and the animals in the garden.
Storing the Roots
Hardy greens such as kales, late cabbages, and Brussels Sprouts usually avoid the devouring teeth of mice, voles, and rats, but this year my red cabbages are already showing signs of rodent damage. These winter brassicas, along with the leeks, can be expected to endure the cold on their own, but rodents are a new challenge to be dealt with. Sweet root crops buried in the soil are especially tempting to the Rodentia dwelling underground in or just outside your garden space. The roots need to be carefully dug up and stored in slightly damp sand in either hard plastic buckets or metal containers with lids. Keep in a cool space, protected from freezing, such as a garage. For beets, carrots, or parsnips, tear off the leafy tops, make sure there are no cuts or damaged areas in the roots, and cover completely with sand. The roots will continue to grow light hairs but stay firm inside; albino leaves, lacking chlorophyll but still edible and tender, will sprout again from the top ends: a blanched, winter garden in the dark.
Potatoes can also be safely stored: wash off all dirt, air-dry, then place in cardboard boxes with folding top flaps, ½ to 2/3 full, leaving room for an air space. Add several layers of newspaper directly on top of the ‘taters inside to keep out any light and to absorb moisture given off by the tubers. Do not store any potatoes with damaged skin or exposed flesh. Place only one variety in each box, in order to easily identify different kinds: Russet, Yukon Gold, California White, or early season Red ‘new potatoes,’ which, if their skins are fully mature, can last in storage just as long as later varieties. Monitor frequently to cull any rotting potatoes and rub off the sprouts as they start to appear. And again, secure your storage area against mice moving in for the winter to dine on the handy food source nearby.
Other stored items will round out your larder. Hard-stem garlic bulbs, once cured, cleaned, and the upper stems removed, can be kept in half-full brown paper bags with tightly rolled tops, in a cool garage. Braided soft-stem garlic, while pretty, tends to dry out while on display, even though the cloves may last longer than the hard-stem varieties. Winter squash can be kept in a cool back room. All in all, there is a winter’s worth of stored, non-processed foods to be dined on.
Preserving Tomatoes, Peppers and Corn
In spite of all the extended sun and dry weather we had this summer, corn and tomatoes matured late, perhaps because of a lack of overall heat units. Keeping things well watered was the major challenge, and certainly will be in the future. After years of canning, I now freeze my tomatoes, either processing them together with garlic and either sweet or hot peppers for use as sauce or salsa, or doing them plain, sieving out the solids from the juice and freezing each separately for more flexibility when defrosting for winter use. Any remaining green tomatoes showing the least bit of yellow can be laid out on newspaper in a moderately warm room, either in the sun or not, to slowly ripen. Again, cull out any that start to rot. These last, fresh tomatoes will not be summer sweet, but are still useful for sauces and breakfast fries. For corn: blanch the cobs for a minute or two, chill in cold water, slice off the corn kernels, making sure, with the back of the knife, to also scrape out and include the milk from the cobs. Stored in zip-lock bags, frozen corn is the one vegetable that tastes absolutely fresh when defrosted. White corn is my favorite; it matures last but tastes the sweetest.
The last garden duty of the year is to plant cover crops in early fall to preserve the soil structure during the winter rains and provide a green chop to till in next spring before planting. There are a wide variety of winter cover crops, including peas, clovers, or oriental radishes. I stick to simple annual rye: it is cheap, readily available, and sprouts well in our cool soil. I protect it at first with floating row cover against the predating birds. Once the rye pushes up several inches it is safe to remove the white sheets. Instead of acres of winter brown, as is usual in colder climes, we can look out on beds of winter green.
This is the final Northwest Gardening column for the year, it will be on a hiatus until next spring.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.