Fall planting for a pandemic victory garden

Submitted photo/Laetitia Sands
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grow rocket salad, also called arugula and roquette. It’s one of many nutritious, leafy greens and other vegetables one can cultivate in fall and winter.

A great many people launched into serious gardening this year as an antidote to home arrest imposed by the killer corona virus pandemic. And what could be more serious than growing plants for food?

If you worry that fall is looming and, with it, the end of this pleasant, productive activity, set your worries aside. All sorts of vegetables can be planted between now and November for harvesting in late fall, winter and even into spring. By then, we may have less to worry about.
Global warming, another huge cloud on the horizon, has a silver lining for us gardeners here in the mid-Atlantic region: Milder temperatures extend the growing season. At a time when many people have seen their incomes plummet, free food can help the budget significantly. Growing it is comforting and satisfying when so much else appears out of our control.
Lettuce is “the mainstay of the fall garden,” according to the “Guide to Fall Gardening,” published by Mother Earth News magazine. Particularly adept at coping with winter temperatures are some of the European heirloom varieties, such as “Marvel of Four Seasons,” “Winter Density,” and “Rouge d’Hiver” (“Winter Red”).
All of these should survive into December. If planted in a cold frame or protected by a thick layer of mulch, they may start growing again in spring after a brief period of dormancy.
Also worth considering are the chicories: radicchio, escarole, endive and sugar loaf. They have colorful leaves and more flavor than traditional lettuce.

Mache (pronounced “mash”), or corn salad, will continue to grow longer than any other salad green. By longer, I don’t mean size. Mache, praised in seed catalogs for its mild flavor and soft texture, reaches only an inch or two in height and takes about two months to mature.
But if you plant mache seeds in a cold frame between September and November, you can probably harvest it all the way into April. The variety ‘Big Seeded’ reportedly survives freezing temperatures and tolerates heat better than other types of mache.
Want something a little more piquant in your salad? Rocket salad, also called arugula and roquette, adds a sharp, tangy flavor when mixed in with lettuce. This cool season crop’s uses don’t end there. It makes a tasty addition to sandwiches, soups, pasta and stir fry dishes.
Common cress and mustard, both of which are also good cooked or raw, add the same sort of peppery taste to salads. Here, it’s worth quoting the late nutritionist Adele Davis, who wrote in her book “Let’s Cook it Right” that “The concentration of vitamins and minerals in deep-green leaves is greater than in any other type of fresh food.” Almost all the cool season crops mentioned here fall into the deep-green category.
Years ago, when I bought my house outside Cambridge, I planted cress in a rudimentary vegetable patch. It liked the spot so much, it naturalized and now comes up every year in winter. It’s a joy to find it, year after year, sometimes peeking out from under the snow, and it perks up my salads throughout the coldest months.

Cress can be planted from September 1 to October 1, according to the University of Maryland Extension Service. It lists the deadline for planting mustard as August 20, but I firmly believe these dates can be stretched due to the much warmer temperatures we’ve experienced in recent years. Their last date for planting lettuce is September 1, but I planted mine on September 7, and it’s coming up beautifully. (Fingers crossed.)
Speaking of mustard, which incidentally matures in just over a month, it also makes a good cover crop, suppressing common soil-borne disease and pests. Other “green manure” plants that can be planted now, as well as in early spring, include peas and oats, common buckwheat and crimson clover. All control weeds –annual and perennial – and, when in flower, they attract helpful insects. Crimson clover produces attractive flowers.
Fava beans, another edible plus soil-enriching crop, can be planted in October and November, as well as in spring. It has one of the highest nitrogen-fixing rates of any cover crop and its deep roots can break up even heavy and compacted soil. Fava beans are delicious boiled, then tossed in butter and herbs, or made into soup. Favas are incredibly nutritious, providing vitamins, minerals, protein, calcium and fiber.
One of the hardiest winter vegetables is spinach. “Savoy” varieties, which have curly leaves, generally tolerate cold better than smooth-leafed ones, according to Mother Earth’s “Guide to Fall Gardening.” Particularly good for over-wintering are: ‘Giant Winter,’ ‘Winter Bloomsdale, ‘Melody’ and ‘Tyee.’ Spinach likes lots of water and cool weather.
The Guide advises that planting spinach four to six weeks before the average fall frost date – in our county, usually between late October and early November – will ensure it reaches just the right size for over-wintering: 3-1/2 to 4 inches in diameter. Use porous row covers to protect it, rather than mulch, which can rot spinach.

Garlic, shallots and rhubarb can be planted from mid-October to mid-November in our region, Egyptian or “walking” onions and short-day onions in September and October. Short-day onions are sweeter than long-day onions. The name refers to the number of hours of light needed per day to develop bulbs.
Shallots and garlic, by the way, can be grown from the ones you buy in a store. Shallots are not cheap but add tremendous flavor to cooking, and each bulb you plant will grow five or six new ones. Make sure to use the outer cloves from a garlic bulb for planting, and save the inner ones for cooking. Garlic planted in fall, incidentally, tastes better than if planted in spring.
Meanwhile, of you can find young kale, cabbage and collard plants at garden centers and hardware stores, now is the time to transplant them into your garden. Cabbages and plants from the cabbage family gain in flavor after going through a frost.
Happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.