The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer counts days carefully for autumn prosperity

Texas farmer counts days carefully for autumn prosperity

turnip sprouts
Turnip sprouts bursting through the soil in a Texas garden. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Swiss chard sprouts
Swiss chard sprouts from seed that fell off last year's crop. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley assembly sprout protectors
Using two upcycled disposable plastic cups with their bottoms cut off and a small square of cloth, Marshall Hinsley assembles a sprout protector for young seedlings. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Upcycled cups protecting seedlings
Upcycled plastic cups protecting small collard green sprouts from insect damage. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
turnip sprouts
Swiss chard sprouts
Marshall Hinsley assembly sprout protectors
Upcycled cups protecting seedlings

Professional duties called me away from farm work for the last half of August. I've therefore made little progress in planting for a fall harvest. If I'm to stay on my path of growing my own food and opting out of industrialized agriculture, I must get serious about planting now.

A few friends have asked what can be planted in the fall, and whether or not it's too late to start a garden. There's a lot of uncertainty about growing crops at this time of year, due in no small part to the fact that most gardening books and planting advice trickle down to Texas from somewhere up north, where winter is a real season.

But in Texas, just about anything you plant in spring can be planted in the fall. Almost everything we plant for food is from some other continent, where it grows in a very different climate.

Whether we plant in spring, summer or fall, we're already working against nature to keep crops alive and productive. Each season has disadvantages. Spring has a lower soil temperature, which delays germination. Summer has drought, and plants wither. Fall has the threat of frost, which kills most crops.

The average first frost date from Austin to North Texas is somewhere between mid November and December 1. But the actual day of the first frost is a wild card.

For example, in October 2012, frost killed all my tomatoes and basil. Yet in previous years, I've harvested tomatoes as late as Christmas Eve. When we plant for fall, we're gambling.

But if you make a conservative estimate and consider mid-November as your cutoff date, you can expect about 80 days of frost-free weather for anything planted by the first week of September.

Among the details on seed packets is the number of days a crop requires to mature. On the back of my packet of Detroit red beets from Sweet Garden Organics, for example, the description ends with "55 days" in italics.

It's a bit cryptic, but the phrase simply means that the crop only needs 55 days to grow from the time it's planted to the day it's harvested. If I plant them on September 1, they'll be ready long before my 80 days of frost-free weather are up.

On the other hand, Wilhite Seed Company's catalog indicates that gold rind honeydew melons require 110 days, quite a bit longer than the safe 80 days left in the season.

Some of the crops planted for fall and ready in enough time to make the effort worthwhile:

  • Green beans, ready in about 63 days
  • Beets, 60 days
  • Carrots, from 58 days with Parisian (a radish-sized carrot) to 73 days with Danvers 126 (a grocery-store style of carrot)
  • Cucumbers, 60 days
  • Green peas, 56 days
  • Squash, a quick 42 days
  • Turnips, 55 days
  • Cilantro, 50 days
  • Lettuce, as few as 21 days for baby leaf mixes or about six weeks for head lettuce

But wait; there's more. Several crops are cold-tolerant and may be planted now for harvesting in late fall and on through to next summer. To be sure, I cover these crops with a frost blanket whenever a hard freeze is in the weather forecast:

  • Collard greens, ready in 50 days — my favorite source of calcium
  • Cabbage, 71 days
  • Broccoli, 66 days
  • Cauliflower, 50 days
  • Kale, 55 days
  • Swiss chard, 60 days
  • Spinach, about 50 days — I have to wait for cooler weather, though, as spinach only germinates in cooler soil
  • Turnip greens, 40 days

In August, my father and I planted about 15 basins of squash alongside nearly 100 tomato plants that were planted last July, so we've got a fall harvest of a few things on the way. Furthermore, there are volunteer plants sprouting throughout my garden beds from seeds dropped by maturing plants in previous seasons.

Every other bed has something growing in it that I didn't plant intentionally: Swiss chard, turnip greens, herbs and such. The longer a garden is tended in one spot, the easier it becomes to grow food. This isn't a boast. It's true for every garden where agricultural chemicals are banned.

Grasshopper invasion
What went wrong for me so far was in the greenhouse. I started about 120 kale, Swiss chard and broccoli plants in small containers so that I could transplant them out in the open fields as soon as the grasshoppers died down for the season.

These were intended for commercial production, but a pest of one sort or another invaded my greenhouse and decapitated each of the sprouts in a single day while I was away. I highly suspect that this damage was caused by a grasshopper, but there are many suspects, so conjecture is a waste of time.

In farming, it's a good idea to factor failure into one's expectations at all times to avoid discouragement. My backup plan now is to sow the broccoli, collard, Swiss chard and kale seeds directly where they will grow in a garden bed.

To protect the tender seedlings from grasshoppers, cut worms or anything else that wants to eat them, I've made protective coverings that keep the pests out without building up heat or blocking sunlight. To make each one, I used two disposable plastic cups with their bottoms cut off and a small square of frost blanket cut out of tattered blankets saved from the previous year.

I placed the cloth over the narrow end of one cup and held it in place by slipping the second cup over it like a sleeve. Positioned with the cloth side up over each seed I sow, the cups give the sprouts room to grow and build strength before being exposed to the elements.

I won't be able to produce enough surplus in my beds alone for selling greens at White Rock Local Market this fall. But soon, I'll try again to start enough transplants for commercial purposes. If they fail too though, I will still have enough collards, kale, chard and other greens growing in a few beds to keep me free from the produce aisle.