It feels good to be out in the garden this month, the weather finally cool enough to shovel and push wheelbarrows without overheating. It's time to plant the fall garden, if you haven't already. There are many crops that prefer this cooler weather; kale is sweetened by frost, and chard, peas, lettuce, garlic, onions, broccoli, parsley, and cilantro also like the milder temperatures. Like all plants, however, they still need sunlight to photosynthesize and grow, so it's best to plant them now, rather than in the heart of winter, when there are fewer hours of sunlight, and the light is often obscured (we hope!) by rainclouds. The temperatures now are cool, but not so cold as to stunt growth. (In the deep of winter, not much energy is put into leaves and stems, but the roots will grow strong in the damp earth.) Now is the sweet spot for fall and winter crops, where there is light and warmth enough to encourage young seedlings to grow, but not so much heat that they bolt off to set seed before making a strong scaffold of leaves. Planting the fall garden now gives time for the leaves to grow for a while in this interim season, to support the ability of the roots to mature in the dark winter months.
So into the garden we go. For some of us, the summer crops are still hanging on; it can be difficult to make space for the fall crops if planting areas are full of the summer crops. Often this is the hardens kind of gardener's math, looking with a realistic rather than an idealistic eye at the practicality of leaving those last green tomatoes to ripen. The fact is, tomatoes won't ripen when the night temperatures are below 50° F at night. They will however, hold on the vines, taunting and teasing a hopeful gardener that they miiiiiiight ripen in another few weeks...Luckily, for the bold, we have some good recipes on the website for what to do with green tomatoes.
One of the best techniques to embrace in the garden is that of interplanting, which can be beneficial for many reasons. If space is an issue, interplanting can be a powerful way to maximize the space you have available. For those of us still too hopeful to tear out all of those sprawling tomatoes, interplanting can be a lifesaver in terms of getting the fall crops in on time, in a limited space. Last week, we planted a few dozen kale and chard plants in a long terrace, making sure to protect the young chard from the ravenous Golden-Crowned Sparrows, whose three-note song repeats over and over in the scrub that surrounds the garden. We turned those terrible, but useful plastic strawberry baskets upside down to cover the small plants until they are larger and more resilient. In between the kale and chard, we tucked the rosy, elongate bulbs of red shallots. These plants are good companions for each other, as the allium scent disrupts the ubiquitous cabbage moth, who likes to lay eggs on the kale plants. The eggs, of course, hatch into fat little green caterpillars that like to nibble the leaves of all brassica. The shallots are a mostly upright crop, while the kale and chard spread out both vertically and horizontally. So the shallots do not take up too much space, and can exist in between the kale and chard, where there would not be room for another leafy plant. In addition, it is useful to grow root crops alongside the leafy crops, as their differing root structures take up nutrients and water differently from the soil. It's almost like diversity makes a stronger community, right?! Even those pesky Golden Crowned sparrows are welcome, though we wish they'd leave the darn pea shoots alone. After all, along with newly sprouted chard and pea sprouts, their winter diet is composed of mostly of seeds of weeds and grasses. They also eat spiders and other insects, although it seems that this happens more in the season when they have young to care for; the growing baby birds require more protein and nutrition than they can obtain from plants alone. So despite the trouble they cause, they, too are welcome in the garden. Once the leaves are stronger and larger, we can take off the ugly baskets, and store them inside so the plastic doesn't degrade. The birds only like the tenderest sprouts, those picky biddies. Of course, we could use wire cages to protect them as well, but sometimes the lightweight, individual berry baskets are just easier to handle for individual seedlings.
We do use wire or floating row cover to protect the tiniest seeded crops, though. Carrots and beets are both best when sown directly from seed; they do not care to be transplanted, as the process often damages their roots. We like to interplant these two, as the young seedlings require the same kind of watering schedule and care, and the mature roots have differing shapes that complement each other in terms of how they take up nutrients and space in the soil. They are so tiny when they first come up, that it is difficult to cover all of the seedlings with individual protection. Also, these seeded crops are often seeded unevenly, or the process of watering scatters the tiny carrot seeds after sowing. So these crops often need to be thinned after planting. While we wait for all the seeds to sprout, so that we can choose the largest and most strategically placed seedlings, we cover the entire area with wire or floating row cover to give them space to grow. All of these protective measures can mean that the garden looks a little messy at times. But it is the kind of mess that a gardener understands, and can look past, and even appreciate, knowing that it means safety and security for the young crops.
Garlic is on the list to be planted next, and soon. We plan to interplant garlic with more carrots, or perhaps some celery if we can find celery starts. Celery is famously slow to grow from seed, and it seems a bit late to seed it directly into the ground in these cool temperatures. Both carrots and celery are in the same family, and they are complementary garden friends. Carrots and celery can help deter insects that feed on garlic, and garlic, in turn, helps to repel the carrot fly, whose larvae tunnel in the roots of carrot and celery, causing damaged roots and reduced plant vigor. Plus, when gathering ingredients for a winter soup, all the ingredients will be close at hand.
Many of these companion planting relationships have been internalized after years of practice, but there is no shame in using reference materials! We have several books that we consult almost every planting season; dirt-smudged and water-stained, these hard-working volumes have been stalwart garden companions. It's also totally fair game to Google a particular plant combination with the words "companion planting"; we did it just this last week, as we tried to remember if chard minded the pungent company of alliums. Relevant books were inside on the shelf, but the phone was there in the pocket, a somewhat useful garden tool, although less resilient to soil and water than the low-tech reference books. We utilize all the tools we have at hand; the latest technology, the old almanacs, the labor of our bodies, the collected wisdom of generations. Interplanting species, interwoven ecosystems, mimicking and mirroring the resilience of natural systems, we incorporate the principles of diversity into our hearts and gardens alike, while the Golden Crowned Sparrows sing on.
By Jessica Tunis