Silvan Goddin, Grow Pittsburgh
As the days get cooler and the air gets crisper, it’s a great time to get back in the garden. The insect pests are less plentiful, the weeds grow more slowly, and physically exerting yourself for a few hours outside is so much more pleasant. Even if you’ve let things go (no judgment here!), Fall is the perfect time for a fresh start. Many seed catalogues and other resources focus solely on Spring and Summer crops, making it confusing to figure out what you can successfully do with your garden at the end of the year. Luckily, you have a lot of good options.
First, you should decide if there are crops you want to take with you into the Winter. Heat-loving summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash won’t last past the first real frost unless you provide a lot of protection and at this point in the season usually aren’t worth the trouble for the amount of produce you’d receive. However, if you still have some stubborn green peppers on your plants refusing to ripen and frost in the forecast, there is hope. Cutting the entire plant at the base of the stem and hanging it up somewhere protected from the cold (we use our basement) will often induce ripening in the last fruits on the plant. This works best for smaller thin-walled peppers rather than chunky bell peppers.
Some plants thrive in cold temperatures, especially with protection. If you’d like to grow some veggies for the Winter and early Spring months, spinach, lettuce, carrots, kale, collards, and leeks are all easy to grow even in very cold weather. Keep in mind that your plants will grow very slowly over the Winter with shorter daylight hours, so if you don’t plant them early enough to get to harvestable size by Winter, you may have to wait a while before they start putting on new growth again. But you’ll still be happy you did it in March and April when you’re munching on fresh spinach and cilantro while others are putting their first seeds in the ground. Construct a low tunnel over your garden beds with hoops and row cover to shelter your veggies from the harshest cold and wind. There are many options for hoop materials, like thick wire or PVC piping, at your local hardware store.
Another classic crop to plant in the cold months is garlic. They may not look like they’re doing much after planting, but the cloves are sending out a strong root system so they can grow quickly once it warms up. For best results in Western Pennsylvania, plant a hardneck garlic variety (we like German White and Music) in mid-October to early November after a good application of compost or organic fertilizer and mulch with straw or leaf mulch to insulate and keep your bed weed-free until it’s ready to harvest next Summer.
If you’ve decided you’re done growing produce for the year, consider a cover crop. Cover crops are a great way to suppress weeds, add nutrients, and keep photosynthesis happening in your garden, thus building and improving your soil. Cereal Rye is a great Winter cover crop for keeping the soil covered as it grows a thick web of fibrous roots even in cold weather that keeps your garden soil from eroding due to wind, rain, and snow. Its network of roots captures the Nitrogen still in your soil and keeps it from leaching out over the Winter. When you terminate your cover crop the following Spring by tilling or mowing and tarping, the Nitrogen is waiting just below the soil surface to feed your new plants. I recommend waiting a couple of weeks after killing your Rye before planting a new crop, as living Rye actually exudes compounds from its roots that inhibit the growth of some other plants, a characteristic called allelopathy, which is another reason it’s so good at out-competing those cool-season weeds in the garden!
Another option for keeping the soil covered over the Winter to prevent erosion is mulching. Mulching will prevent weeds from taking hold in your garden space over the Winter, making it much easier to get growing again the following Spring. Mulch also acts as a buffer between the harsh elements and the soil beneath, protecting earthworms, fungi, and other beneficial soil organisms from drying out while also giving them something to digest and turn into compost for your future veggies. Straw, leaves, or even plain cardboard are all readily available options for mulching the garden and are easy to move to the compost pile once you’re ready to plant again.
The final step in successful Winter gardening is daydreaming! In my opinion, there is nothing better on a cold day than curling up with a cup of tea and a seed catalogue and beginning to plan all the new varieties and growing techniques you’ll try next year. And with one or all of the strategies mentioned above employed, you can feel confident your garden will be better than ever come Spring.
Silvan is a Co-op member and the Greenhouse & Farm Assistant Manager at Grow Pittsburgh. When she’s not trying to grow as much food as possible in small spaces, she loves foraging and forest-lounging with her husband and two dogs.