Lettuce is a perfect crop for cool season gardening. The incredible array of varieties brings a colorful assortment to fall, winter, and spring meals. As you’re planting your fall crops there are a number of lettuces to choose from. You can sow loose leaf mixes, romaine, bibb, or crisphead lettuce. If you’re growing a heading variety you may want to consider starting your lettuce indoors and transplanting seedlings out.
Starting a fall garden often means seeding cool weather crops in hot weather. Starting seeds indoors, in a cool place typically means better germination rates. Lettuce doesn’t need light to germinate so you can set them in a basement or root cellar even if it’s dark until they germinate. Alternatively you can set them in the refrigerator for the first night.
No wasted space.
Having reliable, healthy seedlings means you waste less space in your garden. When you’re planting a fall garden you’re often dealing with restricted space, only planting what you have a cold frames, row cover, or a hoop house to protect. You also have a relatively small window to get crops started. Setting out transplants means that you can make the most of every square in of your garden. You won’t have patches where seed failed to germinate as we discussed above.
Having transplants started also means that that you have a little more leeway for when you plant. It’s essential to get fall crops started on time so that they get established before the temperatures drop.
Start your lettuce in flats or soil blocks of moist, quality potting mix. Keep them somewhere cool at least until they germinate. Once germinated your lettuce should be placed under lights or somewhere they get direct sunlight. Lettuce should be transplanted when the plants are between 2-3 inches tall.
You should harden off your lettuce plants 7-10 days before transplanting. Bring them outdoors for a few hours, increasing the length of time each day. Prepare your bed by loosening the soil and adding compost if available.
Plant your lettuce at the same depth as they were in the pot. Even if they’re leggy, don’t bury the stem. Lettuce stems won’t grow roots like tomatoes and some other plants. Water them in after planting and keep the soil moist especially as they get established. Be sure to have your season extenders ready to go in case of frost.
From the outset, seed saving can seem like a rather simple affair. How hard could it be to collect seeds from your vegetable plants right? When you start trying to learn, it becomes apparent that things are a bit more complicated then that. All of a sudden your thrown into the world of seeds and you’re trying to learn about things like isolation distances, pollination dynamics, and seed cleaning methods. This fall, add one of these five books to your garden shelf for all the seed saving information you need.
Written by Suzanne Ashworth , Seed to Seed provides a comprehensive look at seed saving. It’s perfect for complete beginners or those looking to improve their knowledge. Find information about both common and rare vegetables and herbs from seed collection and storage to maintaining variety purity.
This wonderful book was a partnership between The Organic Seed Alliance and Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a great companion to Seed to Seed. It focuses more on main vegetable varieties with helpful guidelines for both farmers and home gardeners. It also features new seed saving research.
Create your own locally adapted varieties. Carole Deppe provides an informative look at seed saving and plant breeding for both farmers and gardens. Plus, the book is filled with inspiring tales of such interesting vegetables as popping chickpeas, hairy mustards, purple peas, rainbow corn, storage watermelons, and many more.
“An essential guide to high-quality, organic seed production: well grounded in fundamental principles, brimming with practical techniques, thorough in coverage, and remarkably well organized, accessible, and readable.” – Jeff McCormack, Southern Exposure founder. This book is a valuable tool for any seed saver, covering topics like seed-borne diseases, reproductive biology of crop plants, seed crop climates and more.
This book obviously doesn’t provide a comprehensive look at seed saving like those mentioned above, but it is perfect for any tomato enthusiast. Author Craig LeHoullier introduced Cherokee Purple tomatoes to SESE and the world. His book offers incredible insight into all aspects of tomato growing and breeding.
Perfect for your fall reading list, these 5 books can help you save seeds of your own, whether you want to help preserve your favorite heirlooms or breed a local cucumber variety. They’re also a great option to keep in mind for the holidays.
Fall is officially upon us but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop growing. If you visited the Heritage Harvest Festival this past weekend you may have gotten a chance to see SESE’s Ira Wallace and Pam Dawling of the Twin Oaks Community give a talk on winter gardening. They talked crops, season extension, and how they keep growing through the winter. In case you missed it here’s a few tips to get you started with a winter garden of your own.
What to Plant
There’s a surprising number of crops that can be grown in a winter garden. Selecting plants and varieties that have been bred for fall and winter gardens will increase your success.
One of the largest categories is hardy greens. Many greens are quick growing and tolerate low temperatures making them ideal for overwintering in the Southeast. Consider planting mustard greens, lettuce, spinach, collards, kale, cress, arugula, and Swiss Chard.
Many root crops are also quite cold hardy. Try beets, radishes, turnips, carrots, and kohlrabi. Even when they’re not growing they can be heavily mulched and left in the ground for fresh use throughout the winter.
Along with the brassicas that are typically considered cooking greens like collards and kale broccoli and cabbage are also quite cold tolerant. However, these typically need to be seeded or transplanted well in advance. Depending on your zone you may need to plant these in the middle of summer for an early winter harvest. Alternatively, fall planted crops may be overwintered to produce an extra early spring harvest.
Garlic & Onions
Here in Virginia, we start bulb onions in the fall and overwinter them in cold frames. We’ve found the helps us grow large bulbs. This method may not work for those in the deep south or northeast.
You can also find a planting calendar for zone 7 here or get personalized planting reminders when you use our garden planner.
It’s also important to realize that even if you have a greenhouse, plants’ growth slows down when they get less than 10 hours of sunlight per day. Planting on time is crucial if you want to harvest during the fall and winter.
Even the simplest protection from cold, wind, and frost can greatly extend your harvest season.
Cold frames can be as simple or as fancy as you want. At SESE we’ve made many quick cold frames using straw square bales and corrugated plastic sheets. They work wonderfully and the straw can be used as mulch when the bale begins to break down and no longer makes an effective cold frame. If you want a permanent structure that looks nice many people build wooden frames and use old windows on hinges for lids.
Cold frames are ideal for starting cold tolerant crops in the fall and spring and perfect for small salad greens. It’s important to remember to vent them on sunny days because they can heat up quickly.
Row Cover/Low Tunnels
Much like cold frames, you can create low tunnels on nearly any budget. All you need is hoops and clear plastic or a row cover type fabric. Hoops can be made from PVC pipes and stakes, conduit, other tubing, or even flexible saplings that have had their rough spots sanded down. Putting row cover over hoops is much more effective at preventing frost damage than just laying fabric over the plants.
When you’re purchasing row cover it’s important to look at what weight it is. During the fall lighter weight options are a good choice. They provide some protection from the chill and keep out pests but still let light through. At SESE we’ve used tulle fabric (like the kind tutus are made from) as a cheap alternative. During the winter, when plants aren’t growing much anyways you should select heavier row cover even though it blocks more light. It will provide more protection from wind and cold.
Clear plastic is also an option. However, unlike row cover it isn’t breathable. Clear plastic will quickly heat up on a sunny day so it needs to be vented. Row cover is often a better option for those with hectic schedules.
High tunnels and greenhouses are ideal for winter production as well as seed starting during the spring. During the workshop mentioned above, Pam Dawling discussed how they use a hoop house with two layers of plastic to grow year round at Twin Oaks Community. They’ve found that their hoop house keeps the inside air 7°F warmer than outside! They also found that plants in the hoop house tolerate temperatures 14°F colder than they would if they were field grown.
Like other methods that use plastic, hoop houses can heat up on sunny days and sometimes need to be vented. You can add further protection by using row covers within your hoop house.
Having a greenhouse or high tunnel is a dream for many small grower and gardeners but it can be quite the investment. During the workshop, Pam Dawling also discussed one way small market growers can get financial assistance when building a high tunnel. Look at grants through the Natural Resources Conservation Service High Tunnel System Initiative.
You can also build your own greenhouse. We mention some ideas in this post or you can find others DIYs.