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What I'm Learning About Fall Gardening

Volunteers grew up through the mulch in my newest Hugelkultur swale bed.
 The Hugelkultur swale we dug in July was intended for fall planting, but it
couldn't wait & filled itself with volunteer radishes, corn, & a cushaw vine

Every August I start thinking about the fall garden. My planting chart from the cooperative extension office says I can start fall planting in August, but I have to admit that August just doesn't feel right, because it's too hot. On the other hand, I've learned that waiting too long isn't good, because I never know what kind of winter we're going to get. Some years our first frost is mid-October, other years it's closer to December 1st. Some years our winter temps are mild enough to grow winter greens for us and winter pasture for the goats. Other years everything freezes out. So I'm always in a quandary over when to plant.

Recently I read an article at the Sow True Seed website, "Fall Gardening Know How: Root Crops." It shed some light on my gardening dilemma, explaining things I've observed but couldn't figure out why. I've been contemplating this as I clear out space to plant a winter garden.

Sprawling sweet potato vines have overtaken the cardoon plants.
Sprawling sweet potato vines and cardoons.

1st sampling of sweet potatoes found growing under the sprawling vines.
I cleared out the outermost vines to plant peas
and discovered a few sweet potatoes for sampling.

Sprawling sweet potato vines also hid sweet basil I thought didn't make it.
Sweet basil hidden under the sweet potato vines I cut back.

According to the article, cool weather crops need warm soil to germinate and begin to grow, but prefer cooler temps as they mature. So if the soil temperature remains above 70°F (21°C) at that time, the roots become tough and woody and the plants bolt (go to seed).

This explains why some years my fall garden barely grows but goes right to seed. It happens in spring too. If we have a cool spring I get a harvest. If we skip spring and go right into summer, I get seed instead. So even though I plant according to the suggested dates for my garden zone, our unpredictable seasons don't always cooperate.

A handful carrots found in the turnip and
 radish bed I let grow for saving the seed.

This year I decided to stop planting according to the calendar, and start planting according to soil temperature. I bought a cheap soil thermometer and started monitoring my garden soil.

Soil thermometer.
The thermometer has a nice knob so you know where it is.

I checked it almost daily throughout August and early September, but even under the mulch it remained around 84°F (29°C). Finally, after the remnants of Hurricane Florence passed through, the thermometer read below 80°F (26.6°C).

I prefer the old-fashioned kind of thermometer, rather than a digital.
Mid-September soil temp reading: 78°F (25.5°C)

That's when I started planting. Hopefully by the time the plants are starting to mature, the soil will be just right for them.

Speaking of Florence, our only casualty was my popcorn.

Wondering if the ears will still mature.
Lodged popcorn.

I have a lot of planting to do this year, but between the garden and pasture I won't get finished until October. Even so, I'm hoping for a productive winter garden.

Is anyone else planting a fall garden?


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