When I first started gardening, as a total greenhorn, I thought that there was only one harvest opportunity a year. The pre-determined vegetable calendar, to my inexperienced mind, was to plant seeds in the spring, to harvest tomatoes and zucchini in the late summer, and then to haplessly watch the autumn weeds take over the straggling plants until winter’s snowy blanket covered it all over like a forgotten memory.
Now that I’ve gardened for years, I understand that there is the potential for not one, but actually four seasons of harvest. With a little careful planning and planting, that is. You may be aware of spring plantings for summer harvests, summer plantings for fall harvests, and even last-ditch fall plantings for early winter harvests…but have you ever heard of late fall plantings for early spring harvests? I haven’t read very much about them, but I make a point to plan for them every year. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.
As an active forager, I try to be very attuned to the life cycles of the plants I eat, both to find them at their prime and to anticipate their often short-term presence in the forests and fields. I have noticed that a lot of the early spring edibles—the wild violets, the wild lettuces, curly dock, and even some mints—make a second appearance in the fall in a surge of seemingly needless regrowth, right before the snow starts to fly. What these wild plants seem to be doing is preparing themselves to get a jump-start on spring, to have patient leaves and well-fed roots already prepared to grab the first of the thawed sunlight before anyone else can. And for the gardener looking to maximize their garden’s output, there’s an opportunity to mimic this natural rhythm and get a bonus harvest in the earliest of spring.
So all that said, here are some suggested plants that might help you spring-load (if you’ll pardon the pun) your fall planting so that it can take advantage of that same burst of growth in the spring. By carefully planting certain varieties and keeping them alive all winter, it’s actually possible to be harvesting salads, greens, and tasty garden treats as early as April.
**For full disclosure, this article is based on my experience with overwintering vegetables and making a spring harvest in my zone 6a garden. Those in colder climates may need to implement a little more protective infrastructure to care for their plants than the mulches I recommend. Elliot Coleman has a fantastic book (appropriately named Four Season Harvest) on how to use season-extending structures of various sorts to allow for year-round harvests. Considering that he gardens in the state of Maine, I’d say he knows what he’s talking about.
Kale is a cold-weather champ, as many of us already know. Many gardening books rightfully recommend planting it for fall harvest, noting that frost often “sweetens” the nutrition-packed kale leaves. But what then? Well, my recommendation is to let it keep on keepin’ on.
In my garden, I try to make one final planting of kale seeds around mid-September. I let the autumn leaves fall around the smallish sprouts, adding more if necessary, but make sure they’re never fully covered—they’ll need access to a bit of sunlight. If kept alive through the winter—my plants simply stop growing through the freezing months—they’ll start growing as soon as the timing is right, and will be lush with leaves earlier than you’ve ever harvested kale before. So far, my favorite variety for this planting has been Forage Premiere—it did a wonderful job surviving and thriving through the worst of the cold.
My favorite part of overwintered kale is the blissful, wonderful fact that the early spring is too early for cabbage butterflies and other similar pests. As I harvest basket-fulls of perfectly unblemished leaves in the chilly early spring, all my worm-chewed summer plant nightmares have long been forgotten. You should know that these overwintered plants will eventually bolt as the days begin to lengthen. But, if you let them produce their surprisingly starry, sunny-yellow flowers, you’ll be able to harvest the seeds for the next planting season as another bonus harvest. Just remember that kale is botanically the same species as cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, and many other brassica-family plants. If you’re hoping to simultaneously save seeds from multiple brassicas, be sure to isolate blooms to ensure pure seed.
Daikon Radish Seed Pods
I haven’t had much success growing decent fall-planted winter radishes (these are different than your quick-growing salad radishes, please note). Though my September-planted sprouts show promise, they wilt to white, ephemeral ghost-leaves after being buried in snow. But what they lack in winter greenery and worthwhile radishes, they more than makeup for in the early spring. If their roots survive—something they’re designed to do—the spring rush of growth will typically have them bolt into tall flower stalks. Their four-petaled blooms are edible, but if you wait a little longer, you’ll have a bonus harvest of seed pods that few have ever tasted.
Overwintered winter radishes make seed pods in abundance, and while they are still green and juicy, they are delicious. You can collect them by the bowlful and stir-fry them with ginger, garlic, and soy sauce to produce the most delicate, green-bean-like dish of fleeting goodness. Of course, you could also let some pods grow to maturity so you can have seeds for the next planting. I’m sure this would work well for other varieties of winter radishes, but so far, daikon has been what I’ve had the best success with.
Perhaps it’s because of my relative newness to gardening, but I somehow assumed that lettuce was a spring-only plant. In my first-of-the-year planting rush, I’d hurry it into the ground as soon as I could, knowing that it wouldn’t be long until the Ozark heat rushed in and sent it bolting. And, as you may know, when you pick that lettuce in the hot, late spring, it seems such a delicate thing. If you tarry in plunging those tender leaves into cold water, they can wilt at lightning speed.
But I now challenge you to give those same plants the opportunity to show their late-fall toughness, and they’ll laugh while the tomatoes and okra cringe and crumble under the first frosts. Like the wild-lettuce relatives that emerge once again in the fall, domesticated lettuce also thrives in weather that usually means curtains for the bulk of the garden.
I now plant lettuce seeds in late August and September. I’ve had the most success with non-head forming lettuce cultivars when overwintering. I especially recommend Oakleaf lettuce, with its beautifully scalloped edges, as an all-around champ when it comes to the cold. I had plants survive, totally exposed to the elements, in snowstorms that hit a low of -3 degrees Fahrenheit. Somehow, once the snow thawed, they were still there, happily waiting for the sun to give them the go-ahead to grow.
Corn Salad/Lamb’s Lettuce/Mâche
Originally a “weed” of cornfields, this relatively unknown relative to valerian is a delicious base to a fresh salad. It’s one of the few plants mild enough to take the place of lettuce when used the same way. If you’re looking to experiment with winter growing, I can’t recommend it heartily enough.
What this diminutive plant lacks in popularity it more than makes up for in cold hardiness. In my garden, even kale can’t compare to corn salad’s tolerance for freezing temperatures. These beautiful rosettes of tender, sweet-tasting greens can be frozen absolutely solid, but when allowed to thaw before being picked, they’ll show no signs of damage. These plants are perfect candidates, therefore, for a winter cold frame or unheated greenhouse. Get them into the ground early enough to put on a lot of growth, and they’ll just exist in a holding pattern through the winter, allowing you to harvest whenever wanted, no matter what the thermometer says.
I have let a bed of my garden become “naturalized” by mâche. It grows through the early spring, and eventually produces its abundant white flowers, and then fills the soil with hundreds of tiny, khaki-colored seeds. I usually forget about them and go about my spring and fall business in the same bed. But once my summer plants have petered out, those seeds start to grow of their own accord around the beginning of October. They’ll still be there waiting for me in March, once I’ve finally wrested myself from the warmth of the woodstove and get a hankering for good greens.
Perhaps it’s their unfavorable association with poison hemlock that has folks spooked about eating carrot tops, but they are perfectly safe to eat—and delicious, I might add. If you’ve managed to overwinter carrots without losing them to a hungry vole, they will put on a huge amount of lush, green growth as soon as they can in the spring. If I’m not planning to let them go to seed, I hurry to harvest them at the precious moment when they have the most top growth but haven’t begun to get woody as they push out a flower stalk. It takes some finesse, and I don’t always land it. But even if the carrot has become a little tough to chew, those greens are still excellent eating. We spend much of the spring spreading carrot-top pesto on fresh-baked sourdough bread, and often throw minced handfuls of the prettily feathered leaves into warming soups and stews.
You may have already harvested cabbages for your root cellar, but if you left a residual crown of leaves around the lopped-off base, you may still have a harvest more from those generous plants. Don’t rip out the roots—there’s more to come. Or, if your cabbages just didn’t make heads for whatever reason, leave them be through the winter. In both cases, the plants will continue to make tasty green leaves that are nearly identical to collard greens come spring (collards are the same species, after all). Just pluck good-looking leaves from the bottom of the new growth, and new leaves will continue forming up the growing stalk.
And, as with all successfully overwintered brassicas, you have an opportunity to save seeds for the next planting. Just remember that if you are overwintering kale alongside your cabbages and intend to save seeds from both, they will cross-pollinate. To avoid harvesting cabbale and kalbage seeds for your efforts, implement alternate-day bagging or caging of the blossoms.
Garlic bulbs are, of course, well-known for their medicinal and culinary merits, and even the short-lasting, springtime scapes of hardneck garlic are popular as a seasonal delicacy. But who talks about the leaves? More people should. Garlic leaves are delicious; they taste like a cross between scallion greens and, unsurprisingly, garlic. They’re excellent added to soups, stews, omelets, or chopped raw and mixed with olive oil for a bright-tasting bread dip.
After you have planted your garlic in the late fall, it may put out a small bit of growth before winter strikes—don’t harvest those tiny leaves. The garlic will need them to grow in the spring. Instead, wait for when the thaw has triggered them to grow again, and then harvest a leaf or two from your nicest growing plants. Just remember that, as tasty as these leaves are, you can stunt the growth of the bulb if you take too many. I try to take only one or two leaves total from a single plant. Alternatively, if you really like garlic leaves, you can plant a patch of them as a perennial. Just don’t plan on digging up the bulbs, and you can harvest many more leaves from each plant through the spring.
Of course, this is just the start. There are many other good candidates for overwintering and early spring harvests that I haven’t yet discovered. I challenge you to give it a try with your garden this fall, and if you happen to know another secret spring champion, let us all know in the comments below!
About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city. But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.