Grow Your Own + Cool-Season Garden Ideas

I can remember the smell of the wet soil as my grandma and I walked through her abundant Wisconsin garden. She always turned at the exact moment to catch me with chipmunk cheeks full of sun-warmed pear tomatoes — my favorite. We’d laugh, and she’d jokingly remind me to save a few for us to eat at lunch. (There’s no way I could’ve eaten all of the tomatoes on those overflowing plants, but that never stopped me from trying!)

To me that garden was a magical place, like a different world. It was there I learned that amazing beauty and unbeatable taste could come from the humblest of beginnings with a bit of planning, patience and dirt under my nails. Each season Grandma moved me up the ranks — from water girl, schlepping can after can way back to the garden, to being in charge of the garden map and selecting each of the crops to grow and where to plant them.

The experience taught me to look at food differently, and to appreciate freshness, quality, hard work, the awesome power of Mother Nature, and of course good health. It also impelled me to create gardens of varying sizes at each of the five places my husband and I have called home. A tradition I plan to continue and one day pass on.

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How do I love gardening? Let me count the ways. 

Growing my own veg and fruit provides so many benefits. There’s nothing fresher and more local than your backyard, and harvesting at the peak of ripeness means optimal flavor and best possible nutrition. Not to mention it’s a killer (free!) source of exercise, you know exactly where your food was grown and how it was treated, and you greatly diminish your carbon footprint and costs.

Almost as important as those things to me is the kind of therapy gardening provides. Out in the open air absolutely alone with my thoughts, feeling the warm earth, discovering God’s creatures (welcome or not — I’m looking at you, fire ants), witnessing the changes that literally occur overnight. Gardening fills me with a sense of pride, accomplishment, wonder and pleasure.

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I’m still harvesting the last of the summer crops, but the calendar tells me it’s time again to plan and plant. New life is breathed back into our gardens as the cooler winds prevail. There is so much growing time left to enjoy before even beginning to think about the dreaded “f” word! Everything from hardy cruciferous veg to tender salad greens are best planted this month. You can even bring early spring crops back to the party with a second sowing.

Here are a few ideas to start the fall harvest:

  • Crucifers like broccoli, kale and Asian greens sown in September yield a harvest later in the fall and even into winter. In climates with mild winters, midseason or late varieties of cauliflower and cabbage might still be an option, but you better move fast…
  • Tender salad greens — arugula, spinach, mesclun, endive and chard — are easy to grow and long lasting in the cool season. Grow these in the garden, pots on your patio, or boxes on a balcony.
  • Root veg, such as beets, carrots, turnips and rutabagas do well planted from seed in the fall. If your winters are gentle, but you aren’t immune to an occasional freeze, cover with straw or leaves after the first hard frost (sorry!) and continue the harvest as usual.
  • Sow a second set of fast-growing sugar snap or snow peas and radishes now and they’ll be ready to harvest before the first cold snap. Even if you’re a little late, flavor is said to improve after a chilly nip. 
  • Tender herbs, like parsley, cilantro, chives, oregano, basil and thyme can be grown from seed in sunny window pots throughout the winter. Hardier herbs put in as transplants now, or that continue to grow from earlier plantings, may be fine outdoors — I’ve successfully kept pots of sage and rosemary growing on the patio for three seasons now.
  • Plant seeds of scallions (green onions) for harvesting throughout the fall, winter and into spring.
  • Garlic cloves put into the ground now result in a harvest of bulbs come summer. Easy and ridiculously low-maintenance.

[Keep in mind that our garden is on the southeastern coast of North Carolina, where summer is long, “winters” are mild, and spring comes early. Always be sure to check with your local Cooperative Extension for relevant information on planting and harvesting in your area.]

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Bumper crop or bummer crop, gardening fascinates me and leaves me in suspense for the next season.

Whether you have a window box, several patio pots, a small raised bed, or an acre plot to work with, a garden is a source of nutritious, incredibly fresh food (and vitamin D from the sunshine), calorie-burning movement, entertainment, and meaningful experiences. It’s a good solo sport, or one shared with family and friends. So I say grow your own, and go get dirty!

Cheers!

Tell me… Do you keep a garden, or plan to start one this year? What’s on the harvest list? I’d love to know!

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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