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Harvesting Tips for Extending Your Fall Vegetable Garden

 

Assorted lettuces in fall garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Kale, mustard, and lettuce in fall garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

 

In North Florida, December can mark the peak in fall vegetable gardening. Early lettuce varieties are beginning to head and your later varieties are coming on strong. Radishes are starting to erupt out of the ground, and leafy greens are producing big beautiful leaves. But did you know that simple changes in how you harvest can greatly increase the longevity of your fall garden?

Here are a few harvesting tips for stretching out the fall harvest to ensure you will have plenty of greens all the way into spring:

Plant radishes and arugula as gaps form in fall vegetable garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Plant radishes and arugula as gaps form in fall vegetable garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

  • Harvest leaves often: Leafy vegetables and herbs often produce more leaves the more you pick them. Harvest the lower, oldest leaves of vegetables such as leaf lettuce, kale, collards, and Swiss chard often. Be sure to maintain two to three leaves per plant; this method will ensure tender, pest-damage-free leaves, while encouraging the plant to keep producing.
  • Thin to eat: Plants such as arugula and spinach are excellent vegetables to seed heavily and thin to eat. Once the plants have produced their first few true leaves, harvest the whole plant and use the leaves in salads. Continue this method until plants are about six inches apart, and then harvest leaves only. In this way, you will have salads filled with small tender leaves in the beginning of the season, and larger leaves for salads and cooking all the way into spring.
  • Cut stems of florets high: Once your broccoli or cauliflower curds are ready to be harvested, cutting the stem high will often mean more secondary heads will form. Once your plants quit producing florets, start harvesting the leaves, which have great flavor and are highly nutritious. Also, with cauliflower, loosely tie the leaves around the curd. This forms a protective barrier from the sun and also improves color.

    Fall vegetable garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

    Assorted greens in fall vegetable garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.

  • Harvest in the morning: Plant moisture and nutrient content are often highest in the morning. Once harvested, these leaves are less likely to wilt, and flavor will be preserved. Submerge or run cool water over the plants to maintain vigor. Alternatively, you can harvest in the evening if you plan to prepare the food that night.
  • Fill in the gaps: Once you begin harvesting frequently, you will notice space begins to open up in your garden. It is often too early to plant cold-sensitive spring crops, yet you can continue to plant some quick growing fall vegetables, such as radishes and arugula. Sow these seeds as space opens up to maximize your food production until it is warm enough for the new season.
  • Use materials to extend the season: By using frost cloth, low tunnels, cold frames, and shade cloth, you can protect your vegetables from early cold snaps and extend the season into spring. These materials, as well as wire and netting, can also protect your crop from deer, squirrels, and rabbits.

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