Where I live in the mountains just outside town, the early mornings are chilly lately, with a cool and dry wind blowing down the canyon—a sure sign that fall is on its way no matter the recent sunshine.
In the agricultural calendar, fall is a time to reap the abundant harvests of spring’s hard work and summer’s care. Bountiful late season tomatoes, never-ending summer squash, and fat green and purple runner beans overflow from beds at the Carpinteria Garden Park. Shorter days are a signal for many plants to finish their seasonal life cycle, setting seed in the form of fruits and vegetables, the vessels for next season’s garden.
Once summer’s bounty has reached its peak, begin planning for a fall and winter veggie garden. Despite the cooler temperatures and shorter days, it is still easy to grow fresh vegetables year-round. Even a tiny space, such as a single raised bed, or a few large pots on a sunny porch or step, can produce a surprising amount of food with a little planning.
Growing a portion of your household’s produce is an empowering way to connect to seasonal cycles, as well as a source of constant joy and surprise. You’ll observe and connect to the other-than-human world. With a little effort, you can grow enough greens for fresh salad a few times a week, or medicinal herbs for daily teas, or culinary herbs to season every meal.
Nourish your soil
The most important step for any garden, no matter the size, is to build soil fertility. As a backyard farmer, think of yourself first as a soil architect, creating healthy, living soil that will feed the plants that feed you. A spoonful of rich garden soil is filled with millions of microorganisms whose life cycles create soil through waste and decay rich in organic matter.
Adding a two-inch layer of organic compost or worm compost to garden soil between crops is the best way to feed soil-building microorganisms. To apply, spread a generous portion of compost onto bare soil, gently working into the top few inches of soil with your hands or favorite hand tool.
Once garden soil is ready, it is time to plant. Cool season crops such as lettuce, arugula, endive, parsley, cilantro, beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, and onions thrive this time of year. Many of these vegetables can easily be started from seed in garden soil, or bought as transplants from nurseries for a head start. Consider seeding salad greens or root crops every three weeks for succession planting for continuous harvests.
Don’t over water!
As the days shorten, avoid over-watering fall crops. Most vegetables despise cold, wet feet, as shown by their tendency to turn yellow and wither away with daily watering. It is better for soil and plant health to water deeply and less often. Before watering, dig into the soil—if the top two inches are still damp to the touch, wait another few days to water. Allowing soil to dry out between watering promotes strong root growth and healthier plants. Keeping your garden climate dry also discourages common cool season insect pests and plant diseases such as aphids, powdery mildew, and blight.
What to plant?
Fall is the time for planting perennials in your garden, such as fruit trees and native California plants. Time fall plantings for late November to take advantage of (hopefully!) another rainy winter. Bare root fruit trees, the most affordable choice for home-scale production, will soon be available for pre-order from nurseries such as Peaceful Valley Farm (groworganic.com) and Bay Laurel Nursery (baylaurelnursery.com). Make sure to look for “low chill” fruit trees for greatest success along the coast.
Including a few California native plants in your garden for local birds and pollinators is a beautiful way to expand your garden’s offerings. Consider plants such as any of our native sages (white, black, purple, hummingbird) or California buckwheat, which supply almost year-round habitat and food if watered infrequently through next summer. Another local favorite is narrow leaf milkweed (not the tropical species that are often available at nurseries), the primary food source for endangered monarch caterpillars and butterflies.
Alena Steen is coordinator of the Carpinteria Garden Park, an organic community garden located at 4855 Fifth St., developed by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. Community members rent a plot to grow their own fresh produce. The garden is also a center for public education, with classes on organic gardening, nutrition, and sustainability. For a complete schedule or more information visit www.carp-garden.com or follow the garden on Instagram @carp_garden.