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Garden Guru: Not too late to plant for autumn harvest

By John Porter
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For all the fervor and excitement that surrounds planting the vegetable garden in the spring, you would think that home gardeners would be equally excited about growing fall and winter crops.Sure, there is the appeal of that first, warm, vine-ripened tomato or the first "mess" (I am from Southern West Virginia, after all) of green beans.But gardening can mean fresh food even beyond the first bite of frost and freeze. Now is the time to start planning and planting for a bountiful autumn garden.Plants from the spring-planted garden seem to slowly fade before they are taken by frosts and freezes, succumbing to disease, nutrient deficiency and neglect well before their natural expiration date. Gardeners tend to hold on to these plants past their prime, hoping to eke out those last tomatoes despite how miserable the plants may look.Planting a fall garden also allows gardeners to experience that nice rush of fresh produce during cooler days of autumn. Even more exciting is that some pests and diseases aren't as prevalent in the fall. Fall zucchini and squash, for example, breathe a sigh of relief when they realize squash vine borer infections usually afflict only their earlier planted friends.There is an amazing array of produce that can be sown or planted this time of year. Turn to the WVU Extension garden calendar or other similar guide to get a sense of the possibilities. Some of the most common things to plant in July for fall harvest are the cole crops -- broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and the like. If you can find transplants or start your own, they can be planted throughout the month. Likewise, some of the greens such as kale, mustard, spinach and Swiss chard, along with beets, carrots and turnips can be sown now through early September for fall and winter harvests.There are several other crops that are less-common fall garden fare, and they deserve some attention and appreciation for bringing fresh produce past when they are "in season" in the summer garden. Some tomatoes can still be planted in early July, so that older, worn-out tomato plants can be retired gracefully. Beans also can be sown up until about mid-August, and you can also try planting fall peas in August. Cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash will produce a superb fall crop if sown before mid-August.
Check the seed packet or the plant tag to make sure that your crop will mature before it is slowed by cold weather or killed by frost (if it is frost-tender). Cold-tolerant plants, such as the cole crops and greens, will survive frost, but it is best to get them close to maturity before the cold weather stops their growth.The plant information should include "days to maturity," which can vary by variety and can be a good indicator of how long it will take for a harvest to start. But wait -- it's not just that simple. That maturity rate is for plants started in the spring. You are going to have to do more math.Because plant growth will slow down with the cooler fall temperatures, add 14 days to the count. Then, to make sure you have a long enough "harvest window" (you are not likely to run out and harvest everything in one day), add at least 14 more days. That's 28 days so far. Now, if it is frost-tender (like beans and tomatoes), you may want to add a few more weeks just to be safe. You take your resulting sum and count backward from our projected "first killing frost" date, which for most of Southern West Virginia is Oct. 20.To extend the garden fun even further into the fall and winter, consider using protection. Frost row cover is a spun-fiber material that can offer several degrees of protection. I often tell people it looks like a big roll of dryer sheet material. Clear plastic can create what is called a low tunnel, which offers even more protection. Both of these are usually available at feed and seed stores or from online garden/farm retailers.Farm and garden pest clinicI will be holding a clinic for folks who want to have their insects, diseases and weeds identified and their garden and farm questions answered. WVU Extension specialists Dr. Rakesh Chandran (weeds), Dr. Daniel Frank (insects) and Dr. M.M. Rahman (diseases) will join me from 3 to 6 p.m. July 9 at Capitol Market to answer questions, identify pests and offer solutions. Be sure to bring your questions, along with your bugs, plants, weeds and pictures.John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVUgardenguru.
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