Achieving Food Independence
Table of Contents
1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together
7. The Garden Year: Fall
It is a pity that most people think of fall as the end of the gardening season. Actually, the fall garden can be easier and more productive than the summer garden. The cooler temperatures are less stressful on plants, there is typically more soil moisture, and pressures from diseases and most insects are greatly reduced. Many warm season crops—pole beans, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, winter squash, etc.—continue producing until laid low by frost. However, there are many crops we harvest in the middle of the season—spring beets and carrots, lettuces and cooking greens, potatoes, onions and garlic, etc.—which can be followed by fall crops such as collards, cabbages, kale, spinach, chicories, etc. Please note that many of the cool-season crops can be grown both in the spring and the fall. Examples are cabbages, broccoli, and other brassicas; lettuces, chicories, and other salads; cooking greens like spinach, mustard, and raab; and root crops such as carrots and beets. In some cases, particular varieties will not do equally well in both the spring and fall garden, so pay attention to such information when selecting varieties.
Crops of particular interest in the fall are the overwintering alliums—especially garlic, shallots, and multiplier (“potato” or “nesting”) onions (Allium cepa aggregatum). Yield from all these crops will be poor if planted in the spring. When planted in the fall, however (mid-October to mid-November for me, Zone 6b), they make only a bit of top growth, then cease to grow with the onset of seriously cold weather. However, the roots continue to develop any time the ground isn’t frozen, setting the stage for strong growth come spring. These culinary alliums are imminently worth growing. Your best specimens can be set aside after the summer harvest each year, and re-planted in the fall.
Fall cover crops
Fall is also the time for planting all the soil-building overwinter cover crops we possibly can. It can get to be a bit of a juggling act, but I strongly urge you to sow an appropriate cover just as soon as a particular harvest is complete. In the early fall, all the grain grasses are appropriate—wheat, rye, oats, barley—as well as crucifers such as turnip, mustards, and rape. Many of the clovers can also be sown at this time, as well as field peas (pisum arvense). To follow the crops such as sweet potatoes and winter squash (which are harvested only after the first killing frost), rye and vetch will still germinate this late in the season. Whether you get much lush growth depends on the vagaries of the season from that point, and perhaps the state of your karma, but typically at least enough of a cover will establish to protect the soil over winter. When the long nights and seriously cold weather come in, these species will go largely dormant. However, except in really harsh northerly climes they will not be killed, and will come on with a rush in the spring.
Because we think of fall as the season of harvest par excellence, let’s think about how best to keep that harvest—i.e., preserving and storing the food we have grown. Perhaps most people think first of canning and freezing when they think of preserving the garden’s bounty, but for the most part, neither of those is my choice. I want to eat fresh twelve months of the year! Canning and freezing are home equivalents to processed supermarket foods—and I am not especially interested in seeing processed foods on my table. What strategies are available for eating fresh at the table when there is no longer anything to harvest in the garden?
There are first of all a number of crops that store well naturally, in conditions that can be produced in most households. Indeed, onions, garlic, shallots, and winter squash keep well in cool room temperature in the living space of the house. Potatoes and sweet potatoes store well in the basement or cellar, if available. Of course, you can make a “root cellar” for all sorts of natural storage of roots, tubers, even green vegetables such as cabbages, Chinese cabbages, and heading chicories. But even without a root cellar, it is easy to store many of the common vegetables. For example, my preferred method of storage for fall carrots is simply to leave them in the ground, and cover with a mulch deep enough to prevent freezing. Other root crops such as rutabagas, beets, and winter radishes can be stored the same way. I love going out to the garden in the dead of winter, kicking aside the mulch and maybe a layer of snow or ice, and digging the carrots hidden below. The latest I ever dug a carrot stored under mulch was April 1, and it was even sweeter than the previous fall! The mulch is necessary because carrots turn to mush if they freeze. However, there are a few root crops such as parsnips which can freeze and thaw without ill effect. Of course, it is not possible to dig them when the ground is frozen. However, they offer welcome fresh eating in the late winter, long before the first spring crops are ready.
Another option for storage of the dense-fleshed root crops—carrots, beets, winter radishes, etc.—is in an underground pit. Yes, that’s right—just a hole in the ground, what could be simpler? Dig the hole any size you need, and at least 18 up to 24 inches deep. Then place your just-harvested roots inside, cover with a piece of plywood or a plastic sheet to shed rainwater, and protect from freezing with bales of straw. The temperature in the storage pit stays quite cold but never freezes, and the humidity stays high—perfect conditions for these root vegetables. They keep far better there than in a refrigerator, which is dehydrating. Cabbages also store quite well in such a cold storage pit.