Many gardeners think the end of the growing season is when the kids go back to school or the tomato plants are hit with the first frost. For many years, I was no different. I mourned the passing of summer, knowing my bountiful garden would meet its inevitable demise and I would once again be forced to eat the produce from the grocery store bins. My Mid-Atlantic garden produced abundantly in spring and summer, but in the fall I laid it to rest.

Curly Blue Vates kale

Curly Blue Vates kale is a strong performer all four seasons in the garden. (This plant won’t let you down!)

Photo Credit: Ann L. Mattingly

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi makes a great spring and fall crop, and it can be prepared in endless ways as a true culinary delight.

Photo Credit: Ann L. Mattingly

Hoop houses

Simple hoop houses can be easily constructed and used to extend the growing season in fall and cool springs.

Photo Credit: Ann L. Mattingly

Claremont romaine lettuce

Claremont lettuce is an excellent romaine – crisp and juicy and sure to be a big hit in the cool growing seasons!

Photo Credit: Ann L. Mattingly

This all changed for me a few years ago when I began to read about a Maryland chef and farmer, Brett Grohsgal, who trialed cold-hardy greens that survived with little to no protection and could be harvested throughout the winter. And of course there was the Four Season Harvest written by Eliot Coleman from my home state of Maine. And last but not least, there was my mom, who has been organically gardening in Maine for 50 years now. You should see what she packs into an abbreviated season!

If Brett and Eliot and Mom can extend their growing season to incorporate fall and winter harvests, what was I waiting for? So for the past three years, I’ve done my own trials and experimenting and have found the rewards to be great. Now when summer starts to wear on me I find reprieve from the unrelenting heat as I delve into planning my fall and winter harvests. What’s more, it’s so easy and fun to do!

Almost everything that can be grown in the spring can be grown again in the fall. How cool is that?! In my area, some crops do even better in the fall than the spring, like cauliflower and broccoli. As in many other regions of our country, it heats up so quickly in the Mid-Atlantic that spring crops with a longer season tend to suffer toward the end and don’t always mature properly. There are also times when our temperatures are very inconsistent, going from freezing temps one day to 90 degrees the next. Some spring crops just don’t tolerate such inconsistency very well.

I begin planting my fall crops in early to mid-August, seeding in my lettuces and greens, peas, radishes, carrots and beets. I use transplants for broccoli and cauliflower, and I tend to choose both seeds and transplants for collards. If early August temperatures are particularly high, I’ve found a simple shade cloth helps tremendously. In my raised bed gardens this is a very easy feat using simple hoops made out of half-inch PVC pipes arching over the width of the bed and sticking into the ground just inside each side of the bed. I create three hoops for an 8-foot bed, then cover those hoops with either a floating row cover material or a light, breathable tarp. In addition to acting as a shade cloth early on, these makeshift hoop houses provide frost protection in the late fall and can easily be used to extend the growing season by three weeks in fall and again in spring.

Many of the fall crops I plant, like carrots, kohlrabi, spinach and some lettuces, are fairly frost-tolerant, and I can expect to harvest these well into December most years. Other crops, like turnips, mustards, kale, collards, tatsoi, arugula and mâche, can be harvested all winter long with little to no protection. The growing occurs before the onset of winter, but the crops can still be harvested whenever winter temperatures climb above the freezing mark. Many of these crops will put out a vigorous flush of spring growth as well, and when your neighbors are just starting to seed in their spring crops you can already be enjoying platefuls of robust, flavorful salads.

A fall and winter vegetable garden is really easy to plan and maintain and the rewards are so sweet. Chances are you have leftover seed from your spring plantings that might otherwise go to waste. If you choose to make a hoop house covering it can be done quickly, easily and with little expense. And how much better does homegrown lettuce taste compared with half-wilted greens trucked into the local grocery store from far away locales? (There’s no contest!)

Once the temperatures have cooled down, fall and winter gardens are a snap to maintain with little in the way of watering or weeding that has to be done. So instead of planning how to put your garden to rest in late summer and fall, consider planning how to keep it healthy and fruitful for as long as possible. You won’t be disappointed with the results, I promise!