Jewels of Autumn

Around about July 10, the heat defeated me. Instead of spending eager hours in the garden, I retreated inside to seed catalogs and Web sites and my imagination. I started dreaming about the garden that might be possible when the temperature abates.

September presents that rare thing, a second chance at a missed opportunity. If I can imagine that it will again be cool enough to grow lettuce and if I can fight the lassitude of late summer, I can, I believe, create the kitchen vegetable garden of my midsummer daydreams. It’s too late for tomatoes and okra, but I have every intention of turning out neat rows of salad greens, chard, beets and peas in time for Thanksgiving.

While the heat is still on, however, my imagination needs help.  So when vacation arrived this year, I headed to the cool climes of Vermont to remind myself that it was possible to grow luxuriant basil and peas that didn’t turn woody as soon as they emerged.

On the plane, I studied the LSU AgCenter’s wonderful “Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide,” which you can download on the Web at www.lsuagcenter.com free of charge. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t set my sights on anything that would not thrive in New Orleans in autumn. The guide offers a handy chart of the best planting dates for autumn vegetables and suggests optimum varieties for our climate.

I got off the plane and drove to East Wallingford, Vt., where my friend Cary and her son, David, keep a stupendous organic kitchen garden, the kind where you can strip crunchy pea pods right off the vine for a snack before breakfast. The advice below is peppered with suggestions from David, a former Peace Corps volunteer who grew crops successfully in Southeast Asia, and my pal Elizabeth, a displaced Gulf Coast resident who has gardened successfully in Vermont for 20 years.

It is the very tender-leaved vegetables that wither in our heat that are, to me, the point of a vegetable garden. The LSU AgCenter advises that lettuces — a category that I stretch to include arugula — can be planted in New Orleans until Oct. 15.  The problem is that it is not always cool by Oct. 15 — and lettuce seeds germinate best when the weather is cool.  Elizabeth assured me that it was OK to wait until the temperature dipped below the 90s, even if that meant planting later than Oct. 15. David, on the other hand, had an intriguing suggestion: Start your lettuce seeds inside, in the air conditioning.

David also made an important point that I’ve verified with other sources: namely, that organic fertilizers — which I prefer — break down more quickly in the heat. If you’re using compost, this means that compost should be added to the soil just one day before you sow your seeds (or transplant your seedlings). The reason for this is that compost will begin making nitrogen available almost as soon as it is added to soil in hot-weather conditions. If you don’t add seeds or seedlings quickly, all of that available nitrogen will basically leach away.

Carrots and beets, which are also eligible for autumn planting, need to be sown directly into the soil you’ve prepared for your garden. In New Orleans, this soil needs to be elevated above ground level for proper drainage. An elevation of 4 or 5 inches will help immensely. The soil should also be slightly acidic, with a pH between 6 and 7. If you have alkaline soil, as many New Orleanians do, address it by incorporating peat moss or rotted oak leaves into the dirt. Because our water is alkaline, you would do well to err on the side of acidity. If you don’t know your soil’s acidity, buy one of those little prong testers at a garden center (about $8) or contact LSU AgCenter for a professional assessment.

Per the AgCenter, beets and potatoes can be sown until Oct. 15. Other autumn crops, including carrots, Swiss chard, spinach, Chinese cabbage and radishes, can be sown until Nov. 15. Basil wasn’t listed in the LSU AgCenter’s guide, but I have it on good authority that you can set young plants out as soon as the days start to cool and expect good results. You can plant pumpkins from seed as late as Nov. 15, but don’t expect results by Christmas: It takes a solid three months for their fruit to ripen. Tomatoes, eggplant and corn are not recommended for fall gardens. You can try, but there’s simply not enough heat and daylight to bring them to fruition in autumn.

Once you’ve put your seeds into composted soil and tweaked the acidity, it’s just a question of keeping the soil moist (not soggy) and thinning the seedlings. The latter is one of the hardest challenges I face when bringing a vegetable garden along. It seems criminal to toss a perfectly healthy beet seedling on the compost pile to make room for its fellows. Doing so, however, is essential to raising healthy (as opposed to spindly) vegetables. If the heat comes back, mulch with pine straw or invest in shade covers.

Looking ahead, you might want to add a cover crop such as winter rye to your seed order for your fall vegetable garden. Once you’ve harvested the last of your lettuce and plucked all of the beets, replenish the soil for spring by sowing the cover crop over the bed. After two months or so, you can turn it under the soil to lay the foundation for your spring vegetable garden. Cover crops add nitrogen that the next season’s garden will appreciate — but cover crops, like many vegetables, can’t tolerate the heat of midsummer.

It still seems curious to me that the season of most verdant growth in the Northeast is the season of tired, thin vegetable gardens in the South. Gardeners need a season to regroup, however, and if heat rather than freezing temperatures sends us to our catalogs and our planners, that’s all right. A season of dreaming is always the best prelude to a season of growing. 

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