How to garden during brutal Indiana fall and winter months

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By: Jim Carpenter

Michelle@tns/Flickr

Although this information is not exactly timely in terms of immediate usefulness, it might be of interest when it comes to future gardening endeavors.

Planting a fall garden can be a very rewarding activity and might increase your enjoyment in putting food on the table.

A fall garden is very productive when it comes to adding to your growing season for certain vegetables. Fall gardening is limited to cool-season vegetables such as cabbages, carrots, lettuce, broccoli and other crops that will withstand frost. The crop I have enjoyed most planting during fall is carrots. 

The really neat thing, to me, about planting vegetable seed in July or August is how quickly it will take off. Normally, carrot seed might take 10-14 days just to germinate when you plant it during spring. But when you plant in soil that has been warmed by all those sunny days of summer, the germination time is shortened considerably. I have had carrot seed germinate in as few as three days when planted in moist, warm soil.

My main determination in whether to plant a crop for the fall is in how well the spring crop did for me. If I did not get as much production from my early planting as I wanted, I will plant a crop for fall. Another consideration is storage. We store cabbages and carrots for many months in the refrigerator. They will last longer into the winter when you harvest in November or even December than if they started storage in July or August.

While space in the garden is not a problem for me, if a person does have limited room for vegetables it might be very feasible to nearly double your usable area by starting fall crops after some of your summer crops are done. For instance, if you dig your potatoes in July or so, you could then prepare and plant the same ground with beets, carrots, lettuce and more that will mature during fall. One thing these later crops might need more of is water. August and September are generally drier than May and June.

In our area, most fall crops would need to be planted in mid to late July to obtain the necessary warmth to reach maturity by winter. While they will continue to grow after the first frost, they will need to get most of their growing done while there is still sunshine and warmth.

Another neat thing with these cold resistant vegetables is that you can actually store them in the ground until the ground starts to freeze solid. Actually, with a covering of loose straw or dead leaves to insulate them, I have heard of gardeners who dug up fresh produce in the middle of January. I guess that would be the epitome of cold storage!

One of my most memorable fall crops were some carrots I planted the end of July one year. I kept an eye on them through November and finally dug them up the first of December through about 6 inches of wet snow. The ground hadn’t froze yet and those carrots were the sweetest I had ever tasted. The only problem was the soil was very wet and muddy when I dug them up. After that experience, I decided any fall carrots I planted would go into my raised bed so at least the logistics of digging in the freezing mud would be a bit easier.

Of course, it is entirely possible to facilitate the growing season with plastic in the form of hoop or tunnel gardening. Farmers Market vendors use this in addition to their greenhouses to try to provide some produce year-round. But outside of a heated greenhouse, it is very difficult to keep even the hardiest of vegetables growing in our Indiana winters. Also, the taste of winter grown veggies just does not compare to those that were able to utilize more of the sun’s warmth. 

Another plus in putting out a few crops in fall is that you get to extend the pleasure of having fresh veggies growing in your backyard. I didn’t grow any fall vegetables this year as I really didn’t need to add to what I grew earlier. Now I kind of wish I had a few things still growing out there to keep an eye on. Whether you plant anything for fall of the year or not, it is nice to know there might be one more gardening tool available for you to use if you wish.

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