The first frost of autumn sits lightly on yesterday’s grass clippings: the most recent addition to my compost heap.
The season has turned in my small kitchen garden: there was a significant frost last night. Living in hardiness zone 5b, I hope that you zone sixers have several more weeks of growing season ahead… and I’m jealous of you zone seveners, eighters, niners, and tenners (oh, the cool stuff you can grow in zone 10). Fortunately, the weather forecasts had warned of frost, and I’d taken steps in case they were right.
A Defensive Harvest
It doesn’t take deep cold to kill tomato plants, but they may survive a minor frost. I never take that chance. So, yesterday I picked every tomato that appeared to have any chance of ripening. Some were already partially ripe, while others were completely green. Why had tomatoes ripened on the vine in my small kitchen garden? Because I’m lazy.
Some months ago, I explained why you shouldn’t let tomatoes ripen on the vine. I harvest by that philosophy. However, I planted far more tomato plants than I needed this year, and after making and canning more than three gallons of tomato sauce, I lost interest in doing more… until I heard the frost warning. I couldn’t let all those tomatoes go to waste.
Frost completely destroys basil. So, I cut off a dozen or so plants yesterday, and set them in a bowl of water to hold them over so I can use them today. I thought I’d finished with tomato and mozzarella salad, but it’s too good not to make up one more bowl full. Dill and lettuce I ignored; they don’t mind frost. In fact, I’m expecting another solid week or two of growth on the lettuce plants… I’ll use the dill to make pickles this week or on the weekend—I’ve never made pickles, and I like trying new things.
My Dining Room Table
During my transition from fall gardening to winter sloth, a lot of stuff lands on my dining room table. That’s where I always ripen tomatoes. Now, along with ripening tomatoes, there is a bouquet of basil, a platter of butternut squash seeds, and a paper towel dotted with tomato seeds. These will move on before Thanksgiving.
We’ll eat some tomatoes and sauce or toss the others. The basil will go down with the tomatoes we eat. I’ll put the seeds in the refrigerator in a week or two to convince them it’s winter. In March, I’ll plant the tomato seeds indoors for transplanting to the garden in May. I’ll plant the squash seeds in the garden in June as the spring pea plants begin to expire.
Is Your Small Kitchen Garden on Break?
Is it tempting or sad to think that time has run out this year for gardeners? Actually, it’s wrong to think that time has run out. There’s still much time to do useful things in a garden. I’m going to plant a pear tree soon; later today, I’ll place an order on line and have the tree shipped to me (I’ve been posting quite a bit lately about planting pears).
End-of-season tomatoes, tomato seeds, squash seeds, and a bouquet of basil are prominent on my dining room table. Yes, that’s also a dying Venus fly trap that followed my wife home from the gardening store about a month ago.
If you’re not planting fruit or other perennials, this is a great time to start a new garden. Lay out new planting beds, cut and remove sod, build raised bed gardens, and condition the soil so it’s ready to work at the earliest possible moment in the spring. Some annuals like to start in the fall so they have a head start in the spring, and some seeds winter over just fine so they can pop the moment the soil thaws. I’ve never planted annuals in autumn, so I can’t make recommendations. I have had volunteer plants show up in my garden, and those lead to a few suggestions.
Annuals to Plant in Autumn
Planting cilantro and dill now will likely result in early sprouting in the spring. By planting, I mean to get the seeds in the ground as you would in the spring, but don’t water them and encourage them to grow. Actually, established, young cilantro plants may stay green well until mid winter, and they’ll start growing as the air warms in the spring.
I’ve seen onions winter over and start growing in the spring with no special attention. I’ve also had volunteer tomatoes, squash, and gourds start in my garden, but I wouldn’t plant those in the fall; I want squash to sprout in late spring, and I’d rather plant tomato plants (rather than seeds) after the last frost instead of waiting for seeds to sprout several weeks later.
I’ve heard you can plant some varieties of broccoli in the fall… come to think of it, I once left several “spent” plants in the garden one year, and they started growing again the next spring. I wouldn’t chance this with any common variety; look for hardy, slow-growing plants—and maybe the supplier can confirm they’ll winter over OK outdoors. I’ve also heard peas planted now—or later this fall, will start growing when the soil thaws, and I’d be very tempted to do this… but I never have. If I think of it, I’ll put in a test row this fall and tell you what comes of it next March or April.