Fall Gardening — I Keep Trying!

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Quinn

When I was a backyard gardener, I made a few attempts at starting a fall crop of spinach. As far as I can remember, none ever came up. I was puzzled by this, but I wasn’t motivated enough to try and figure out why. Now at Panther’s Hollow, I’ve been more serious about making my garden as productive as possible and have read a number of articles and attended presentations on the joys of fall — or even year-round — gardening.

So far my efforts have focused mainly on growing brassicas, since they are cool-season and, I believe, mostly frost-tolerant crops. Well, last year I had a number of cabbages started when the groundhog apparently got in and nibbled them all down to nothing! This year I put a hot wire around the bottom of my fence, but I haven’t seen the groundhog since mid-summer, so I can’t say whether or not that would have helped. In any case, I now have a few decent kale plants (a first for me), a few cabbages, and some very chewed-up Brussels sprout plants to show for my efforts. But out of the couple dozen spinach seeds I sowed, only seven plants have emerged and survived — and these are pitifully small!

On the advice of a neighbor, I set out my Brussels sprout plants in July rather than in May as I used to, but I think I’ll return to my earlier practice next year. With only three weeks left in the growing season, they haven’t developed even the tiniest sprouts. I don’t think it’s entirely due to the dry weather, or the fact that I planted them in a layer of only half-finished compost mixed with a little soil over a kill mulch of cardboard and weeds.

I have noticed, though, that the rows of kale I planted in bare earth grew much better than the ones I planted in the compost mixture, and I’ve since learned that brassicas need really firm soil. I wanted to do the kill mulch because the weeds were so bad, but obviously this was a bad idea for brassicas. In fact, even the few spinach plants that came up in my bare-soil plot have done better than in the beds where I added the above-mentioned compost. It’s those darned wood shavings I use for chicken litter — they take forever to break down! I’m starting to use straw more than shavings, so hopefully in the future I’ll actually have finished compost when I want it. But here’s another thing I’m learning: it’s probably better to add nothing to the soil than to add half-finished compost!

Besides that, I guess I need to start using row covers for my cabbages and Brussels sprouts, since I’ve been plagued with a never-ending stream of cross-striped cabbage worms. I’ve been squishing them almost every day, and there are always more. It’s especially difficult with these two vegetables, since they start in the rolled-up leaves at the top where you can’t see them. I tried draping burlap over the plants, but that didn’t seem to help. I wonder if diatomaceous earth would have worked? Fortunately, the kale plants seem to have escaped their attention for the most part, along with the red cabbages.

Here’s a question about red cabbages: I understand they have to overwinter and will take a full year to mature. Can anyone tell me how this is done? Do I have to mulch them over completely before frost hits, or what?

I made another interesting discovery with regard to the cabbage worms: I’ve noticed a multitude of brownish moths feeding constantly on the marigolds that were blooming at the edge of the brassica patch. I suspect these are the cabbage worm moths, so I’ve since removed the marigolds. The intercropping enthusiasts seem to recommend planting marigolds practically everywhere, but I guess in some situations it’s best to cut them back before flowering. Too bad — they look so nice in the garden!

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