Tag Archives: gardening

Fall gardening basics – part 1

For many gardeners, September is the month to put away dreams of fresh vegetables grown with your own hands on the dinner table, but this is more a matter of custom than capacity. The good earth is ready and willing to continue to yield bounty for us, and, with a little additional effort, will do so into the last month of the year.

Extending the growing season is a practice that has gone on for thousands of years all over the world. Sixth century texts from China describe gardeners there producing food “in the most unpromising spot and time,” and there are written reports that the Roman elite enjoyed such delicacies as cucumbers in the winter months.

We don’t have to be among the elite to enjoy fall and winter vegetables, and it might not even be too late this year to sneak in some simple planting and watering before cold truly descends upon us. Illinois Extension service Educator James Theuri says that, although we’ve had a cool season, the heartier of the cooking greens may still be worth planting.

“It started off being cold late into the month of May, when we should have been planting. Now it has started getting cold too early again – September should be warmer than this,” Theuri said.

Theuri recommends some of the heartier greens for planting outdoors right now.

“Something like mustard greens could go in the ground – those ones are tough,” explained Theuri. “Maybe a few others could be attempted, like kale and collard – the cooking greens.” Theuri also recommends lettuce for those still itching to plant.

Across the region, the traditional planting season is winding down, but Theuri said those of us in Chicago have a couple of advantages that extend that season a bit.

“Chicago has a micro-climate of its own,” Theuri said. “It’s a concrete jungle out there, and concrete absorbs a lot of heat.

There’s also the Lake Michigan off-shore air temperatures that keep the city warmer.

“One issue is soil temperature – soon the first four inches of soil will be too cold for seeds to germinate, according to Theuri. “Soil temperatures at about 4 inch-depths of soil are at about 62 degrees now,” Theuri said. “We start worrying quite a bit when temperatures are in the low ’40s. Then it’s getting too cold for seeds to germinate.”

Extend your season

For those gardeners who are looking for more than a few weeks of luck to sneak in a mini-crop of greens, though, Theuri recommends one of the more common season extending structures to turn those few weeks before cold settles in into months of growing – well after that first frost date.

“If you don’t want to chance whether you’ll be successful or not … the thing to do then is to cheat mother nature,” explained Theuri. “If you can cover those plants with some sort of structure, that will protect them against storms, cold snaps of temperature [and the] wind chill factor … one of the simplest of them all is called the cold frame – it’s just a box with a covering that will allow light through.” That covering can be made of glass, plexiglass, or plastic, Theuri said. The covering, known in fancier circles as the “light,” can be something as simple as a storm door window. Theuri said he spotted just such a window going into the trash one day, salvaged it and now grows lettuce into November and December each year in an 18-inch-high cold frame (on the south side of his office building, he noted, where there is a micro climate that ticks temperatures up a few degrees), where he estimates the temperature is up to about 10 degrees warmer than outside.

James Theuri grows vegetables well past the fall growing season using this simple cold frame.

A slightly more complicated alternative to the cold frame is the tunnel, which is a series of hoops made out of wood, metal or pvc piping and covered with a plastic sheet. “High tunnels” act as mini-greenhouses, with everything you need in a greenhouse but the temperature control – the man-made temperature control, that is. Low tunnels will come to the knee or waist and are a little less convenient as they cannot be stood up in.

Either way, it’s the heat being trapped inside that does the trick of extending the season, Theuri explained. “The cold frame itself has a greenhouse effect – traps the heat in there,” he said. “That’s why you never want to leave a human being or a pet or a plant inside a car in summer, because the car traps in the heat and does not let the heat get out. That’s the same principle with a cold frame.”

Your fall crop will even benefit from something as simple as a blanket from the house on a chilly night, Theuri added.

“Row covers – you can just put down row covers or blankets or bed sheets over plants if you know it’s a frost night and you can protect them,” he said.

If a gardener is willing to keep an eye on the thermometer and employ some of these simple plant-protecting solutions, they are in for a treat, Theuri said.

“This is a much more enjoyable time to garden,” according to Theuri. “One, it’s not so hot. Two, you don’t have so many insects hanging around. You don’t have so many diseases. The weeds, once you pull them out, don’t have a chance to come back as fast.”

And there’s another bonus.

“If you are successful with your crops, the cool season vegetables, some of those crops taste sweeter …They tolerate the cold by accumulating sugar in the leaves … they taste even better,” Theuri said.

Fall planting roundup

Here’s a partial list of the vegetable seeds James Theuri recommends for fall planting:

mustard greens, kale, collards, lettuce, kohlrabi, chard, turnips, cabbage, and spinach

Now get to it!


Thanks to James Theuri for the photographs.


Virtual swap added to the blog

We’ve looked at a whole bunch of online seed exchange methods and come up with what we think is the easiest and most swapper-friendly method for trading seed online. You’ll see a new tab above marked “swap here!” that will get you to the online swap page (or, lazybones, just click here). Please restrict comments on that post to swap offers and seed requests.

That’s not old seed – it’s elderseed!

Ken Dunn from the Resource Center stopped by the Op Shop this past week with a bounteous gift that transformed a conversation we were having about some seeds in the seed exchange collection. What Ken brought was a bunch of seeds that have a few years under their belts, especially a whole lot of Burpee’s Fordhook zucchini.

Burpee's Fordhook zucchini for days

This changed a conversation we had been having about a few tomato seed packets we had in the mix that were more than a year or two old. Thanks to Ken’s generous gift, they went from an anomaly to a few of the many seeds in our newly launched elderseed exchange program.

Fordhook zucchini seeds, our featured elderseed

Checking the vitality of seeds you’ve had for a few years is pretty easy to do, and what could be more in keeping with the principals of the Op Shop IV’s urban agriculture ethic than to seek out seed that would otherwise be cast aside and let it flourish, perhaps so that its own seed might contribute to the exchange in the future?

Ken laid out the basics of how to test the seed, and we visited a University of Illinois Extension service page to make sure you had a place to check out details. (It’s the first paragraph under “Planning Tips” at the bottom of the page.)

Basically, you moisten (not soak) a paper towel and line up 10 seeds from the packet you are testing on the towel. Fold the towel in half and keep it in a warm place (like on top of your fridge).

The Fordhook zucchini seeds, ready for testing

Whatever sprouts after a couple of weeks (keep the towel moist with a spray bottle the whole time) is what will grow. Depending on how many sprout, you have a rough percentage of how many of the seeds you have that will germinate.

Stop by the South Side Seed Exchange

Chicago gardeners! Getting ready for the growing season? Thinking about what to do with all of those extra seeds in the packets you’ll be buying for this year? Or what to do with all those extra seeds from last year? Then check out the seed exchange at the Op Shop in Hyde Park at 1001 E. 53rd St. We started developing the exchange in March and so far have more than 7,000 seeds and roughly 65 varieties of vegetables and flowers. Join the community of South Siders swapping seed and build the variety of our exchange.

Romano pole beans from Bountiful Gardens

How does it work? First, check out our list of available seed (which will be updated as needed) and stop by with seed of your own. Fill out a simple slip saying what you’re leaving and what you’re taking – and that’s it! As you add to our inventory, you’ll be building a resource that can benefit the whole city while broadening the diversity of what you can plant this year.

And if you’re planning on stopping by, check out the Op Shop website and be sure and come by when one of many performances, public conversations, workshops and other activities are taking place. Op Shop IV also features a collaboration with Connect-the-Lots, a project by Amber Ginsburg and Lia Rousset.

Sprouts aplenty from Connect-the-Lots at the Op Shop

Be sure to email us with any questions or comments at southsideseeds@gmail.com.