You Can Never Fail at Gardening When There Are So Many Chances: An Amateur Gardener’s Experience With Cool Season Planting

            Many aspiring gardeners don’t realize the harvest doesn’t end when the weather becomes cooler and the days get shorter. Don’t abandon the garden just because fall is rolling around! Missouri does tend to have longer summers, which extends the production of peppers, tomatoes and other warm season vegetables well into September and even October. I had jalapeño plants producing through October. The mild fall season in Missouri also opens up a wide window to grow cool season plants, such as lettuce, broccoli and cabbage. The trick is to know when to plant, and proper care.

A jalapeño hiding among mint, a wonderful herb that grows voraciously. This is from a plant that I pulled out only a week and a half ago!

As an urban gardener in downtown Columbia, I had my first experience gardening on my own this spring, summer and fall. By sharing my experience with cool season planting, I hope to lead others to success next fall. The basic principles can also be applied to the spring, when cool season plants can be planted as early as the first frost-free date. As I have discovered as a first-time gardener on my own, experience is key.

The prime planting time for most cool season vegetables is early-mid August in order to allow enough time for the plants to mature and fruit for maximum harvests. University of Missouri Extension provides a wonderful resource for the proper dates to plant. But living in a climate as bizarre as Missouri’s, it can be too hot to plant even into September. If seeds must be in the ground when the temperature persists over 80 degrees, the most important rule is to keep the seeds evenly moist. Don’t be discouraged if the seedlings don’t show right away. I planted lettuce in mid-August, and it took almost four weeks for them to break through the ground. They still are not ready to harvest, unfortunately. I am undecided whether the lettuce seeds weren’t watered consistently in the beginning, or if the soil was not well drained enough, which also stunts growth.

Notice how the radish (forefront) looms over the lettuce. It should be the other way around by now.

Unfortunately, one can’t just wait until it is cool enough to plant. I did this, and waited until mid-September to plant spinach, beets, garlic mustard and a mesclun lettuce mix. The seeds that did sprout aren’t anywhere near ready for harvest. It is pertinent to give a plant enough time to mature before the threat of frost is present, usually around the end of October. Luckily, cold season vegetables are slightly frost resistant, so I am hoping for the possibility of a harvest by Thanksgiving Break.

This is a close up of a row of half garlic mustard and half mesclun lettuce mix. Notice the almost empty row to the right, with one baby spinach poking out near the back. A sad sight to see such a low germination rate, but that does not faze me! The joy of seeing just these little guys is enough.

But the main problem with those seeds is that most didn’t sprout. I believe this is because I made rows for the seeds about 4-6 inches tall to provide the soil good drainage. But my preparations were erroneous, because the rows are in the area of highest elevation in my garden, meaning that there is already fine drainage. So the rows became very dry and the seeds did not have enough moisture to sprout. I have deduced this by noticing new sprouts not long after it rains. This exemplifies dormancy; a seed can remain in the ground for a period of time with potential to sprout. So don’t give up on your seeds if they don’t sprout right away!

See how some of the garlic mustard sprouted in the trough between rows? I believe this happened when I tried to fix the rows being too high, and knocked some into the low area. Looks like they like it that way!

Watering often is still just as important during the fall as it is in the summer, although evaporation is lower with cooler temperatures and less sunlight. As the cloudy, cool days became more common, I realized that I did not water as consistently, because I figured the soil was retaining water better. This is true to an extent, but does not exactly apply because seedlings must be kept evenly moist until germination in order to be successful. The easiest way to monitor this is to put your finger about two inches deep in the ground near the seed. If any soil sticks to your finger, then the soil is moist enough, but if the soil is dry and crumbly, then water more often.

Ultimately, I feel my limited success with cold season planting has to do with the depth of the seed when planted. A seed should be planted in the soil at a depth approximately two times its’ diameter. Exact measurements are given on the back of seed packets, but the rule of two times diameter is easier to gauge.

This little guy just came up within the past week of rains! This is my only beet that sprouted, and I believe that is because I planted them too deep. But one came up, go beets!

In terms of success, radishes, collard greens, and snow peas worked best for me this fall. I had near 100% germination and development of plants. Radishes are great for the fall season because they grow very quickly and can be replanted and harvested several times throughout the whole season. Peas are not very heat tolerant, ones I planted last April fried up by late May, so the cooling climate is ideal for them. My collard greens are not quite developed enough to start harvesting yet, but they are looking great, and I am positive for a harvest before Thanksgiving break.

I highly recommend planting snow peas for fall gardens. They germinate very easily and quickly and are so much fun to watch grow! Note the kale growing in the top left corner, I've had that plant since mid-summer. Kale can be planted for a fall harvest as well. It is one the most nutritionally beneficial greens there is!

There are even more options to extend the growing season. Covering the plants at night will protect them from a frost, but be sure to remove the covering during the day so the plants can soak up the sun! A contraption called a cold frame with a glass hinged lid can be built with just a bit of wood and old windows, and cool season plants could be potentially grown well into the winter.

My first experience with fall gardening has taught me that above all, it is the experience of gardening that I value most. I may have only harvested about 25% of what I planted for this cool season, but learning from mistakes and through practice is even more valuable. My thumb may not be quite green yet, but it sure is fun getting there! So for those of us who just simply like to watch things grow, don’t ever stop trying.

The classic collard greens, joined by some lettuce sprouts behind.

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