Fall's the Perfect Time to Plant Herb and Veggie Gardens, Experts Say

By Ben Fractenberg on September 20, 2012 6:35am 

BUSHWICK — As fall officially starts this week, urban gardeners hungry for an Autumn harvest are in luck — there's still plenty of time to plant a crop of cool-weather veggies and other edibles.

From hot peppers to Swiss Chard, to purple basil, many herbs and vegetables do particularly well in cool weather and, if planted now, will give you produce all the way through November, and possibly through the winter, according to plant experts across the city.

"The season's not over. A lot of people think come September, leaves start changing, gardening is over," said Rebecca Bullene, 32, a garden designer and grower who runs Greenery NYC. "There's so much more you can do to really extend your crops. And there's a lot of crops that prefer growing in cool weather."

As long as you get your plants in by mid-October, you should be able to get some good veggies in time for Thanksgiving, Bullene said.

"New York City is in a different climate zone than a lot of the rest of New York, certainly upstate, because there's so much concrete. The city holds on to a lot of heat," Bullene said.

"Our soil actually stays a little bit warmer here in the city. It helps extend the season."

Dimitri Gatanas, 39, the head of Harlem's Urban Garden Center on Park Avenue in Harlem, said urban farming and gardening is seeing a boom in popularity.

"I have sold more veggies this year than we've sold in our whole history," Gatanas said, adding that those looking to plant a fall crop is also on the rise.

"It's now becoming more popular [to plant in the fall]. The idea of people planting to eat is really popular now," he added.

Gatanas explained that a fall garden offers several attractions that can make it more appealing than a summer garden — first, it requires less maintenance.

"When it's cold you water less," he said. "When you water and it's between 40 and 60 [degrees] it doesn't dissipate as quickly as if it was 75 [degrees] or more."

Composting is also more effective in the fall, he said.

"Good soil is bacteria being eaten up by micro organisms. It happens really well in this type of weather," he said.

In addition, he said a properly-planted and tended fall garden can last long into even the coldest months.

One of his clients was able to grow crops throughout the winter, he said.

"All you have to do is protect it from snow. Put plastic over it. You get warmth from the sun during the day. It seems to do very well."

Bullene said starting a fall garden begins with getting the right ingredients — starting with the soil.

"First and foremost, if you're growing food in New York City you need to get soil. The soil all over New York is really contaminated," said Bullene. "So I say start with fresh soil. That can be making a raised bed in your backyard or getting a container. I do a lot of veggies and herbs in containers."

Next step — choose the right plants.

Leafy greens like kale, lettuce and Swiss chard do well in cooler weather, said Bullene, who was busy planting her own fall garden in her backyard garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn, last week.

Besides kale, she also planted narcissus, hot peppers, purple basil, parsley, stevia, and celery.

Fall gardens can also be cheaper than summer gardens. Bullene spent about $60 for her fall plantings. It can cost an additional $250 to $300 for the raised bed, organic soil, seedlings, wood chips, compost, manure and mulch, she said.

Even if you don't have space for a raised bed, you can still make the most out of your terrace or rooftop by using a "mixed container" with several different crops inside.

"Doing a mixed container is a great way of saving space," Bullene said, adding that a 16 inch or 20 inch plant pot is big enough for several herbs to go in together.

She added that mixing plants can also benefit their growth — something growers call "companion planting."

"Some plants use different nutrients and they put nitrogen back in" to the soil, which is then used by other plants, said Bullene, "so it's always good to mix things together and not just have a monoculture crop in one container."

But there are a few key differences that distinguish fall planting from summer plants.

Unlike the spring and summer, when seeds thrive, fall gardens work best when they start with a young plant rather than planting seeds, which may not be able to germinate before the first frost.

Farmer's markets generally have affordable seedlings, experts said.

In addition, gardeners should take special care to give their crops the nutrition they need before the cold hits.

"Fertilize sooner rather than later. It doesn't work when it gets [too] to cold," said Gatanas. "If you fertilize now they get their best feeding into the winter."

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