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Autumn's bounty

Who says summer's the only time to harvest fresh veggies?

Who says summer's the only time to harvest fresh veggies?

August 25, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

Last January, Tim Higgins walked out of his Hagerstown-area kitchen to the yard and harvested some beets.

Novice gardeners might not realize it, but vegetable-planting season isn't over.

With higher prices for fresh and canned vegetables, fall planting offers more opportunities to reduce your expenses and enjoy a fresh bounty through the fall without gobbling up some gas to get to the grocery store.

There's still time to plant leaf, romaine and butterhead lettuces, radishes, spinach and broccoli rabe.

They should be planted so there is enough time for the vegetables to mature before the first frost date, which is typically late October. To determine how long it takes for a vegetable to mature, check out the seed packet or a Web site such as www.johnnyseeds.com.

Time is approaching to plant garlic, rhubarb, shallots and upland cress.

Some vegetables, such as beets and carrots, probably should already have been planted. But there are varieties that mature quickly and might beat the frost. These include peas and early-maturing varieties of beets, says Julie Stinar, with Evensong Farm south of Sharpsburg.

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The prices for fresh vegetables rose 8.4 percent from July 2007 to July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Prices for canned vegetable increased 8.9 percent in the past year, says Ephraim Leibtag, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service. Prices for fresh and canned vegetables might stabilize for the rest of the year, Leibtag says, but that's hard to predict.

The cold, hard facts

The key to fall vegetable planting is to beat the frost, says Annette Ipsan, horticulture extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

For Washington County, there is a 90 percent chance of frost as early as Oct. 26, Ipsan says. Frosty air would affect spinach, lettuce and other vegetables that grow above ground, while a hard, ground-penetrating frost affects root vegetables. Typically, a hard frost arrives around Thanksgiving in Western Maryland.

While most beets and carrots planted now won't mature before frost, there are still several vegetables and quick-maturing varieties of slow-growing vegetables that can be planted. Check seed packets to make sure the vegetables will mature before frost is expected.

Beat the frost

But there are ways to protect above- and below-ground vegetables from frost.

Rather than bagging autumn's fallen leaves, Higgins uses them on his vegetable garden, covering greens such as spinach and parsley to protect them from cold. By then they are usually done growing and don't require full sunlight. He leaves some of the plant heads exposed to sunlight, but the leaves keep the plants warm. He just pushes them aside when he needs to harvest.

Other options are to cover the vegetables with a thin fabric, such as a floating row cover, and anchor it, Ipsan says. This can extend the vegetables' season.

Another solution is a container garden, which can be brought inside the garage when it gets too cold, says Tina Webster, a Washington County master gardener who lives in Fairplay.

Some gardeners use a cold frame, which is a mini-greenhouse, to extend the fall season or get an early start on spring planting, Ipsan says. The lid can be lifted to let out excess heat or closed to keep heat inside.

The taste of some vegetables improves or changes after a fall frost, says Higgins, a Robinwood Endocrinology dietitian, who was chef and owner of a New York restaurant in the late 1990s. A frost gives Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and collard greens a sweeter flavor. Parsnips and turnips also get sweeter after a frost, says Ipsan.

What to plant

The Maryland Cooperative Extension provides a free list of planting dates for vegetable crops in Maryland. Go to www.hgic.umd.edu/content/onlinepublications.cfm, scroll down to "Planting Dates for Vegetable Crops in Maryland" and download the file. You can read it on screen or print it. The dates are based on Central Maryland and might run slightly later for Washington County.

Most of the vegetables listed are popular or traditional vegetables.

There are more exotic options as well, including members of the brassica family, says Michael James, whose family runs Blueberry Hill farm in Clear Spring. Blueberry Hill has a community-supported agriculture program and sells produce at farmers markets.

The brassica family includes familiar vegetables such as cauliflower, kale, broccoli, collards and Brussels sprouts. But it also includes broccoli rabe, whose leafy greens are good in a stir-fry, and tatsoi, an Asian green that looks like spinach, but has a little spiciness to it and is good raw.

When young and tender, tatsoi is good in salads. Mature greens are good in a sauté, James says. Like other members of the brassica family, after a fall frost the flavor of tatsoi gets a little sweeter.

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