With Labor Day behind us (hello, unofficial start of autumn!) and the harvest moon coming Friday (its bright orb also signals the end of summer: historically, farmers relied on the seasonal shiner to stretch their days while picking warm-weather crops), you’d think it’s the perfect time to fill the free space in your garden with fall fruits and vegetables. You would be wrong.
“Unfortunately, we need to think of fall when we don’t want to garden, which is July and August,” says Piper Klee, owner of the Urban Dirt Gardening Company, who creates culinary gardens for restaurant chefs in the Dallas area. If you hung up your sun hat and stashed away your gardening boots during those hot, hot months, though, Klee would understand. “This is a weird year. It’s still hot. It should be cooling down—and it won’t cool down for most of Texas probably until late September, so we really are behind the rest of the country.” Based on the calendar, it’s too late to raise corn, potatoes, or squash from seed in time to serve your loved ones at Thanksgiving. Those crops require 100-plus days to mature, and we’re about 75 days away from frying turkeys.
But serving something homegrown is still possible—and might taste better too (like a turkey you’ve hunted, cleaned, cooked, and carved yourself). And let’s be honest: casually admitting that you grew part of the feast in your own backyard is a surefire way to impress family and friends. So this month, as the evening temperatures begin to cool off, you’ll want to begin planting leafy greens and herbs—“the things you can eat all the time anyway,” says Klee, who, in addition to maintaining more than sixty raised beds for professional kitchens, teaches aspiring backyard gardeners the basics in local workshops. She says their fast-growing nature is great for first-time gardeners, and you can still cast seeds for edible flowers too (for your festive tablescapes). Here are her tips for getting started.
Start Leafy Green Seeds Now
“The leafy green that most people in the South would relate to would be collard greens,” Klee says, “and that’s a great fall crop for sure.” So if you’re planning to serve, say, collards stuffed into roasted acorn squash at Thanksgiving, you’ll want to get seeds in the ground now (this month, at the latest) so that you can harvest around November.
Think Outside of Collards Too
“There are so many different leafy greens.” And Klee’s not just talking about butterhead lettuce and arugula, good as they are. “Get some Asian greens growing, and your flavor palette changes immensely.”
Pick Your Packets Wisely
If you’re a beginner, you’ll want seeds that sprout pretty easily—to ensure great success with minimal maintenance (which, like beginner’s luck, will encourage you to garden again next season)—and Klee’s go-to sources for her gardening workshops are True Leaf Market and Kitazawa.
Sow Several Times
Once you’ve settled on the greens you’d like to grow, don’t sow seeds just once. “I would plant a row of lettuce or a row of arugula every twenty or twenty-one days,” Klee says, adding that this will set you up “for continuous growing through winter.” Think of this style of planting—adding new rows of seeds every few weeks—as a way to safeguard against potential loss too: if squirrels dig up some and caterpillars demolish the others, you’ll increase your chances of harvesting a salad or two.
Prepare for Freezing Temperatures
According to the Farmers’ Almanac, the average first frost arrives as early as October 20 in Amarillo and as late as December 20 in Houston—and, of course, Turkey Day falls right in between. But even if chilly temps arrive like clockwork this year, all will not be lost. “Leafy greens are fast-growing crops that tend to like cooler temperatures,” Klee says. “Covered with light frost cover, they can be harvested through most of the Texas winter.” As for what to use to protect your veggie patch from arctic breezes, you could opt for something as simple as old sheets or as high-tech as blankets designed for backyard beds, held up by garden hoops (like this).
Add Some Herbs
“Herbs that can be planted as transplants now are parsley, chives, arugula, mint, fennel, thyme, or sage,” Klee says, referring to seedlings you can buy at your local nursery (in the Dallas area, she’s partial to North Haven Nursery). They’ll come in handy over the holidays—in stuffing, gravy, and roasted vegetables (like these sweet potatoes)—and will come back year after year.
If you’ve tried your hand at growing herbs in pots only to see them die off at the end of the season, consider installing a raised bed, Klee’s method of choice (“We don’t grow in the ground because we don’t have great soil”). The extra space will help their root systems grow and thrive. “You’re just going to pick off of them for years and use them as your kitchen garden,” she says.
Don’t have space for (or interest in) a raised bed for a kitchen garden? Consider using herbs as edible landscaping instead. “Anything with a hard stem, those are usually perennials and those are called woody herbs, and they can be used basically as landscape shrubbery.” Examples of these include rosemary, lavender, and sage.
. . . and Let Them Flower
In a true edible landscape, Klee says that herbs are planted for their beauty and for their ability to attract pollinators—in other words, for their flowers. “They need to be in the ground for a long time to get big enough to produce flowers. Sage will produce a flower eventually. We cut on it so quickly that we don’t always see a flower.” Other flowering herbs include lavender, rosemary, and oregano, all of which would look right at home in a good old-fashioned flower bed against a house.
Plant Edible Flowers Too
“Nasturtiums are the chef go-to flower,” Klee says. “They’re edible and they’re not really available commercially,” meaning you’ll need to plant them from seed, which you can still do now. The trailing perennials fill a garden bed quickly and are a great garnish for fall drinks and dishes (their yellow and orange blossoms are likely to match your holiday tablescapes too). “They love cool weather,” Klee says, but “unless you plant the next two weeks, they won’t be ready anywhere close to Thanksgiving.” Time to dust off those boots, find that hat, and get back in the garden.