Here’s the game. It’s called “Every Bed Planted,” and in our garden we play it every year. Our opponent — winter — always wins in the end, but we don’t see it quite that way. We’re also competing against ourselves, because each fall we see how late we can still put in crops that will produce food, and how long we can go without a single bed looking a sad brown rather than a productive green.
Now, in midsummer, the game is well underway. Always eager to get the most out of our garden, we’ve made sure that spaces once occupied by peas, lettuce and spring onions will soon be yielding Swiss chard, green beans and a wide array of brassicas such as kale and Brussels sprouts for fall and early winter harvest. Root crops such as beets and potatoes can sit in the ground until the last possible moment, before the Frost King delivers his final blow.
As the days get hotter, they get shorter, and we start to view summer crops with a gimlet eye. Broccoli, whose side shoot production has declined, and zucchini, whose production has not declined enough, will not be missed, and can soon free up space for fall bok choy, mizuna and slow-growing but valiantly cold-hardy mache. Because there are more good cool-weather crops than hot ones in our repertoire, we know we are leaping ahead at this point and making all the right moves.
But the game gets tougher as the days get cooler. More beds empty out as the tomatoes start to lose their lusciousness and all the corn is gone. Our eyes are on the low “days to harvest” numbers in the seed catalogue, looking for quick crops such as radishes, arugula and baby turnips that we can still sow. Germination is better for cool-weather crops as temperatures dip, but growth slows down. So we start reaching into our bag of tricks. Starting crops such as lettuce, parsley, radicchio, kale and escarole indoors and setting them out as transplants gains us a lot of time. They are at the ready when old crops are pulled out.
Overwintering our crops is another stealth tactic. A portable cold frame placed over young spinach, carrots, cut-and-come-again lettuce, mustards and other cold-tolerant greens will yield a long winter harvest. Even a mulch of evergreen boughs can defeat winter’s worst efforts. Any snow that falls will be trapped in the boughs as crop protection. When thaws occur, we can pull the branches aside and enjoy the harvest.
It’s also okay to cheat by planting a cover crop of hairy vetch, best sown in early to mid-September in Washington, to occupy beds all winter long. Though not edible for humans, it can be tilled or dug into the soil next spring, or cut and added to the compost pile. The nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots will have added a great boost of fertility to the soil. And for that, a gardener can claim victory.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of The Garden Primer.
Ready to grow your own food? Read more at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens.