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  • Charlene Sims, Journal staff

Colder than normal weather a challenge for fall gardening

Keeping a fall garden growing this year has been a challenge with the colder-than-normal temperatures. Using wire hoops, plastic and heat lamps has the author's garden continuing to grow. (Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

What a year for a fall garden!

Until COVID and food shortages in 2020, we had never intentionally planted a fall garden. The harvest of the summer garden usually had us tired of vegetables, and when friends suggested we needed to plant a fall garden, we just ignored them.

The grocery shortages and rising prices made us think that we needed to figure out a way to provide some fresh vegetables in the winter if they were unavailable or too expensive at the store.

For the last two years, my husband and I decided to add extra work to our lives by putting in fall gardens after – or even before – our summer gardens were finished.

In fall 2020, the late-season garden was small. We planted pumpkins in August and with the cooperation of unseasonably warm temperatures, we had a nice late fall crop of pumpkins.

Last year we planted carrots, beets, spinach, broccoli, onions, pumpkins and lettuce. Once again, warmer-than-usual fall temperatures helped out. With only covering the crops with sheets and blankets, we were able to have fresh vegetables until late December.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, the temperature was going to drop into the 20s so we spent our evening harvesting vegetables. We picked five gallon bags of carrots, a couple of bags of green onions, beet greens, spinach and the end of the lettuce. The broccoli, covered with a bucket and a blanket, produced until the end of January.

We also had about 20 pumpkins that were in the process of turning orange when we had to pick them. So we put them in our sunroom for a couple of months and they did ripen. Our sunroom is a room on the south side of our house that helps with heating our house during sunny winter days.

With all of this success behind us, we were feeling pretty sure of ourselves in 2022. Even though we had managed a successful summer garden in a drought with much watering, we decided to plant a fall garden.

We even got most things planted in August, when you are supposed to plant them, but had a few failures because of the lack of moisture. The first planting of green beans were very spotty as were the pumpkins. We replanted and got good stands after the severe heat was over.

We also had good stands of carrots, beets, onions, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

Things were going pretty well with just using sheets and blankets until the frigid weather in late October and November hit.

It was decision time. Should we just let it go or should we try to save all or part of the garden? We knew the carrots and spinach might survive with just the blankets for a while, but what about the green beans, pumpkins, and even lettuce?

We only had so much plastic so we had to choose our first sacrifice. It was the pumpkins. There were a few small ones and the plants had already been partially damaged by the cold weather even covered with blankets. So we cut the small green pumpkins and took them to our sunroom to see if they would ripen. They have almost ripened all the way.

We knew the green beans would not stand the cold, but we decided to cover them with plastic and blankets on top. Since the area the vegetables were in was about 15 feet wide and 50 feet long, we set up wire hoops over the plants. Down the center, we put electric heat lamps inside of two barrels (so the plastic would not be touching the heat lamps and so condensation would not drip onto the bulbs) with window fans blowing the heat down the row.

We then put the plastic over the rows and on the very cold nights in the teens we covered the plastic with blankets and towels. We made sure the plastic was above the plants because the cold plastic touching the plants would kill them. We had a few places that the plastic slipped down and the plants were dead.

If you flew over our place in an airplane, you would probably wonder what the red lights emanating from the ground are. Our poultry houses also glow red at night.

As of now, Nov. 28, we have saved everything except a few green beans that were farther away from the heat source. Some of them are blooming, but we question whether they need something more to help them pollinate and make beans. But this is all just an experiment, so we will see.

The lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots and onions are doing great. We take the plastic off when the days are in the 40s and put it back every night if it’s going to frost or freeze. We have fresh salads from the lettuce and spinach and green onions nearly every day.

We use the beet greens and spinach as cooked greens and will probably harvest the carrots in December.

The cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage are still growing but no heads have formed yet on the broccoli and cauliflower. Another experiment.

We also had some kale planted in a mineral bucket that was doing very well but when the cold came we only covered it with a very heavy blanket and it got too cold. I have hopes that it will come back in the spring. Just another experiment.

If we had known that temperatures were going to dip down in the teens in early November, we probably would not have planted, at least not as much. But we are still thinking of ways that we can provide fresh vegetables for ourselves all winter without building and heating a greenhouse or high tunnel.

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