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Cool Season Vegetable Gardening

Fall and Winter Greens & Reds & More


When the trees begin to show fall colors, your garden can too. Unless you live in a mild winter climate, you may not have thought about planting for a fall harvest that can continue even into the winter.


We’re not talking about setting aside a large area for fall. Although if you have that much space to spare, that’s fine. All you need is some room amidst existing plants. Consider using available space in your flower garden or mixed border; fill in areas with edibles as you remove tired-looking annuals or prune back perennials. Of course, there is always some room in the vegetable or herb garden.

For fall harvests you can start everything from seed sown directly in the garden. In spring, you can usually find a plethora of starts—cell packs or small potted plants at local nurseries, garden centers, and home stores. In summer, you won’t find starts; you have to rely on seed you purchased.


Do you enjoy salad and other greens fresh from the garden? In season, they are fabulous, especially cut-and-come-again greens like leaf lettuces, arugula, mustard, and others. Yet have you seen the price of mixed greens—often called mesclun—at the grocery store lately? For what you would pay for two weeks worth of salad greens for a family of four, you can buy more than enough seed to keep you in salad all fall and well into winter. Look for greens that you would normally plant in spring before the last frost date—those that can take some cold.

Since these are mostly “foliage plants,” look for those that add a dimension of color in addition to “leafy green” when selecting varieties to add to your garden. If you don’t segregate ornamentals from edibles, you will want the plants to add as much interest—leaf color, shape, size, and plant form—as possible.

Choose from among the many leaf lettuces, including these All-America Selections winners: ‘Red Sails’ (1985), ‘Buttercrunch’ (1963), ‘Ruby’ (1958), and ‘Salad Bowl’ (1952). Romaines can take the cold; try ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ and ‘Freckles’ for good color. Mix in some ‘Lollo Rossa,’ ‘Arctic King,’ ‘Winter Marvel,’ and ‘North Pole’ for an outstanding winter collection.


Sow each type of seed separately, or create your own personal mesclun blend. You can mix all the seeds together in a bowl and then scatter them on bare soil—thicker than normal. Make an eighteen-inch-wide swath through a garden bed, or edge the path leading from the sidewalk to your front door. The greens will come up in a colorful carpet. By the time the plants are a few inches tall they will need thinning. Pull up plants at random for an instant salad of baby greens. There is plenty to share with neighbors who seem to sense when picking time starts—and invite them to come over and help themselves to fresh greens.

Since you will be planting in the heat of summer, sow the seed in a partly shaded spot, or provide shade with spun polyester cloth to keep them cooler. Mist lightly during the day to refresh the seedlings and young plants. Otherwise, they require no different care than spring-sown seeds. Growing spinach in the spring can be a challenge, as it doesn’t like the heat. In fall, it is happy with the cooling weather. Be sure to avoid any varieties that are labeled “summer” spinach. As with the other plants for fall harvest, sow the seed in a partially shaded area to keep the soil from getting too warm.

To many, the flavor of kale—like Brussels sprouts—is enhanced by frost. For diversity of leaf shape, color (from deep green to blue), size, and crunch, choose several kale varieties. Finely curled red-leafed ‘Redbor Hybrid’, and bluish crinkle-leafed ‘Winterbor’ are amazingly hardy and can last through winter. ‘Lacinata’ holds its deep bluish-green leaves upright, while ‘Red Russian’ with a mauve tinge to the leaves, has a more open habit.

Swiss chard is a must-have. Forget about the plain green leaves you knew as a child. Grow ‘Bright Lights’ (1998 AAS winner) to delight your eyes as well as your palate. With ribs that run the gamut from silver to gold, orange, pink, red, and green, a stand of Swiss chard looks like stained glass with the early morning or late afternoon sun glimmering through it. It is so decorative in the garden you don’t have to eat it.

Add some pizzazz to your cool season vegetable garden with crops like nutty mache or corn salad, Oriental delights like mizuna and tatsoi, plum purple radishes.

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