Some plants can go in the ground in fall for harvesting in spring.
For the gardener, early fall is always a bit sad. You’re ripping out spent annual vegetable plants, tucking the garden under a blanket of mulch, and thinking about spring. But there are plenty of things you can do now to keep homegrown food on the table through the winter months.
Preserve the Summer Harvest
If you’re a serious homesteader, you’ve probably already got cans of tomatoes and fruit preserves lining your basement shelves. But even small-scale gardeners can put a few things by to make sure there’s homegrown food in the house during the winter months.
The freezer is the small-scale gardener’s best friend. Green beans freeze well if washed and sliced into one-inch lengths. Other vegetables, like squash, are better if you blanch them first—cut them up and toss them into a pot of boiling water just for a couple of minutes, then rinse them with cold water to stop them from continuing to cook. Make sure they’re dry before freezing them.
Tomatoes, too, don’t have to be canned to be enjoyed in the winter. Core them, cut out the blemishes, and put them whole into a pot of boiling water. When the skin starts to split, ladle them out, let them cool, and peel them. They can be dropped into gallon freezer bags and stored upright in the freezer. Freeze them in batches of four or six or eight, depending on how you plan to use them. When you want to make tomato sauce in January, tip them into a saucepan and put them over a low heat. You’ll have to cut up the bigger pieces or use a stick blender, but the blanched and frozen tomatoes will disintegrate nicely into sauce. Spoon off the excess liquid if you don’t want to simmer them forever.
Excess herbs can be frozen in ice cube trays. For best results, just fill the bottom half of each compartment with chopped herbs and a little water. Basil also freezes well if washed and pressed flat inside a ziplock bag. You can simply break off a small handful when you’re cooking and toss it into the pot. The flavor of frozen herbs won’t be as electric in the mouth as fresh herbs, but they’ve got more zing than dried herbs.
Another Round of Cool-Weather Crops
It’s not too late to plant another round of greens. Lettuces will do well in the fall, especially in a cold frame. The simplest cold frame is a rectangle formed by bales of straw, with an old window over the top to let in light and trap heat.
Mache, also called lamb’s lettuce, is a popular salad green in Europe that does well when planted in September. The greens can be harvested when they’re fairly small, and the leftovers can be turned over to enrich the soil for next season.
Fast-growing root crops like radishes can also be planted in early fall, especially early varieties like Cherry Belle that mature in about three weeks. You’ll want to harvest as soon as possible to avoid having the crop ruined by an extended early cold snap.
Hardier greens like kale can withstand a little frost. Some gardeners even wait to harvest till after the first frost, saying the flavor is better that way. If the early winter is mild, you may still be harvesting after Thanksgiving. Fall greens may be better picked as tender baby greens—if you wait for full maturity you may get cheated of your harvest by the weather.
Plant the Beginning of Next Year’s Harvest
There are a few things that should go in the ground now for a summer harvest. Garlic should be planted after first frost. A thick blanket of mulch can help protect it through the winter. Because it keeps well, you’ll be setting yourself up for next winter, with a bit of homegrown flavor in nearly every meal.
Spinach planted in the fall can often survive the winter in a cold frame, or covered in a foot-deep layer of much.
Perennial onion varieties like Egyptian Walking Onions are best planted in fall. Once established, a small bed of onions can supply all the needs of your table, so you rarely have to buy onions at the grocery store.
Go for It!
With a little ingenuity, gardeners can turn the fall season into a time of beginnings and new growth.