Now is the time to gather your cool weather fall/winter seeds and start planning your cool weather garden. Mid August is the time to start them in seed cells or little newspaper pots you make by rolling newspaper around the bottom of a wine or beer bottle, pinching the bottom together, and fill with seed starting soil (1/3 perlite or vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost).
Put them in a sunny window or in a cool porch area and keep them damp. By the time they are big enough to put in the ground, it will be time to set them in your beds. Cool weather plants include the (brassicus) cabbage family, spinach, lettuces, Swiss chard, beets, carrots, pansies, etc.
Grow year round. Winter, I grow under plastic. Home Depot sells rolls of white 3.5 mil plastic which can be cut to size. I lay my tomato cages on their sides alternating direction on the bed, and lay the plastic over that to keep it from squishing the plants.
Then I weigh the edge of the plastic sheets with cinder blocks or big rocks. It also helps in windy areas to have something to lay over the top of the plastic to keep it from being a sail. Whatever you have on hand.
Also, now start your perennials which you want to plant in the fall, or look in catalogs for the trees, bushes, and perennial herbs and things you want to plant in then. Fall is one of the best times (along with spring) to plant your orchards or just a tree in the yard.
As your annual food plants die off in the heat or as the season progresses, make sure to add layers of mulch to your beds if you are no-till like we are here. I like to gather organic matter and layer it 3 layers deep (of different things like grass clippings, crushed granite for minerals, alfalfa pellets for nitrogen, used coffee grounds for the worms, or the last of the chipped autumn leaves from last year) for a good 4 inches in existing beds each season. It will decompose and feed the worms, as well as insulate the garden over the winter.
As we start getting leaves falling, gather them, run them through a chipper if you have them to make them lighter and finer texture, or run your mower over them and catch it in a mower bag. Or put the leaves in a garbage can and stick your weed eater string trimmer down in there to break up the leaves. Use these leaves to layer mulch your beds, or store them in large contractor bags (not light garbage bags which break up) which can be reused 10 to 20 times. These are available in boxes at Home Depot.
In bags, leaves are great insulators for delicate perennials, laying them around the plant. I use mine to surround my un-planted nursery of trees and bushes, then cover it all with plastic to weather the winter. In the spring I use the crushed leaves to mulch newly planted spring plants, or to build new soil for new beds using ‘sheet mulching’ techniques (aka lasagna gardening).
Choose plant varieties that do well in your growing zone. If you don’t know what that is go to see the map at: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/. The hardiness zones for each seed packet can be found on the back of the packet. It also helps to find out from neighbors or the local Extension Office which varieties do best in your area. I plant only heirloom, heritage or open pollinated varieties, skipping anything that is ‘hybrid’ because they don’t breed true and the seeds are useless to save. But I experiment with varieties people give me or from seed swaps so I am always expanding the bio-diversity in my garden, and increase my seed varieties.
I want sustainability in the kinds of things I use in my precious garden space. They need to go into the future. We are loosing our bio-diversity of foods just because they are being neglected by big farming operations or dropped by the seed companies as not profitable.
That means it’s up to us to keep those landrace varieties going. A landrace is a domesticated, regional ecotype; a locally adapted, traditional variety of a domesticated species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species. Landraces are generally distinguished from cultivars, and from breeds in the standardized sense, although the term landrace breed is sometimes used synonymously instead, as distinguished from the term standardized breed in contexts in which the word breed is used expansively. The -race in this word refers to the taxonomic definition of race in biology, not the ethnographic sense of the word. Wikipedia
Look out into your garden. Make detailed journal notes for yourselves to record what you grew in which bed this summer so you can keep track of the soil needs and rotation of your crops. Then decide how much of this growing area you want to plant in fall and/or winter crops, and what you want to lay fallow (unused), or cover with a cover crop like rye or clover (which gets turned over in the spring, adding organic matter to the soil), so you know how much space you have for your next season. That way you know how many of which kinds of seeds to start now.
If you have trouble deciding how much space you need for each thing, get a copy of the book “Square Foot Gardening” which has lovely tables of plants and how much space they need.
I usually inter-plant many varieties of plants in the same space rather than do clumps of one kind of thing. I use the idea of ‘companion plants’ (google it, it’s a fascinating subject) so that the plants help each other growing next to each other. In Permaculture Design this is called a “Guild” because the plants form a kind of family that works together.
I intensively plant and make sure the soil is rich, so I get the most yield out of a given space. I don’t leave spots or areas un-planted for long. If I pull something out, I fill that space asap. This is called succession planting. I add in a handful of nutritious amends like coffee grounds and alfalfa pellets mixed into the soil, then plunk in the new plant or seed.
I am available for consultation either by phone or email no matter where in the country you live. Contact me by email if you want my help at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am familiar with many areas of the country for growing one’s own food. And I’m a Certified Permaculture Designer who loves to help people get started, increase their yield in existing spaces, or help with projects big or small.