Fall Gardening Tips From Edibles Experts

Two vegetable gardeners from Monticello and the Atlanta Botanical Garden offer tips on planting and maintenance in the fall.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photography by Robert Llewellyn

Photo By: Image courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photo by Eleanor Gould

Photo By: Image courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photo by Eleanor Gould

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Patricia Brodowski

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, Photo by Patricia Brodowski

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Patricia Brodowski

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Patricia Brodowski

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Patricia Brodowski

Photo By: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photography by Robert Llewellyn

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Monticello Aerial View

In this overhead view of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, you can see the vegetable garden which is the long, narrow tract to the right of center. Vegetable gardener Patricia Brodowski says, “The garden is two acres or three football fields. We have a list of about 400 things Jefferson was growing and we grow about 200 of those. When we introduce something new, we try to save seeds from it.”

Choux de Milan Cabbage

Cabbages are grown for different seasons of the year at Monticello and the Choux de Milan, an Italian variety, is one of the most unique. “It has a purple tinge to the leaves but it's a green cabbage and is really stunning” says Brodowski. “It's basically a winter cabbage, like the Savoy types with crinkled leaves and does better when it gets colder. If you grow it in spring in our climate, it tends to bolt before making a head.”

Rows of Garlic

A range of 55-75 degrees provides the best conditions at Monticello for growing garlic (in center of photo), onions and leeks. The native soil is predominantly red clay which is supplemented by six to eight inches of compost a year. “We layer it and till it with a hand tiller. We make our own compost out of all the organic matter - leaves, weeds, twigs, dead plant material. It’s wonderful soil that has been composted for thirty years. It looks like cookie dough,” says Brodowski. 

Deer Resistant

The vegetable gardeners at Monticello direct seed arugula in the ground because it grows quickly and deer don’t like to eat it. “It matures in 40 days,” says Brodowski, “but you harvest leaves at 3 inches long. If you let it bolt, the flowers are white with maroon streaks and have the same mustardy zing. I’ve been told they can be dried for later use. The seeds are prolific and will sow themselves.”

Ice Lettuce

A delightful cool weather green, Ice Lettuce was among the many edible plants Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. “We found this French heirloom Reine des Glaces (Queen of Ice) lettuce to be perfect in our garden with delicious crisp heads of leaves with those attractive fringes,” says Brodowski. “We have direct seeded it and also transplanted it. Our direct seeding for fall went into the ground the first week of August. We usually have back-up transplants of lettuce in case of a bad winter. This lettuce resists bolting, which means you have a head of lettuce even if the temperatures climb.”

All Season Favorite

This row of onions (on left) is a popular perennial in the Monticello vegetable garden because it performs well year round, even in cold climates, and has a strong flavor. Thomas Jefferson referred to this crop as the Tree Onion but it is also known as Egyptian Onion or Walking Onion. Brodowski notes that this plant produces “large bulbs in the winter, sprouting scallion-type leaves in spring and tiny bulblets atop the rising stalks in summer; the bulblets produce more onions if you let them fall.”

Strawberry Spinach

Also known as Strawberry Blite, this unusual and colorful vegetable was popular in the 1600s. The plant, which takes 45 days to mature, is sown in the fall and survives the winter, even when temperatures drop to three degrees. It is also a visual wonder. “The effect is like fireworks,” Brodowski reveals, “with low branching stalks covered in at first green berries and later the brilliant red as they turn  juicy.” You eat the spinach leaves in the early spring and later you can use the red berries in salads and sauces (but they do have seeds inside).

Purple Peacock

This variety of broccoli is a cross between Red Russian Kale and Purple Sprouting Broccoli and produces fancy indented leaves and flowerettes. “Unlike the broccoli that makes one large head,” Brodowski says, “this one makes lots of smaller side shoots with smaller flowering heads. The cool thing about broccoli is that you can manage to have some producing long into the winter.”

Upland Cress

High in vitamin C, Upland Cress is in the Mustard family and was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. It is planted in late summer and is great in salads with a vinaigrette dressing as the vinegar balances the strong mustard flavor. “It can take two weeks to germinate,” Brodowski states, “but will last through the winter and bloom in the spring with yellow clusters of flowers that are attractive to beneficial insects who need to consume pollen if they don’t find insects to eat.”

Urban Veggies

A small sample of the fall vegetable crop at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in the heart of the city includes flat leaf Parsley (bottom of photo), Bull’s Blood Beet (center) and Dinosaur kale (top), which is also known as Lacinato or Tuscan kale. “Most leafy green vegetables (kale, lettuce, collards) are planted in mid-September and/or mid-February here in Atlanta when temperatures are cooler,” says vegetable gardener Moe Hemmings. 

The Comely Cardoon

A relative of the artichoke, Cardoon produces a beautiful thistle-like flower and leaves which you can braise or sautee for eating. Hemmings says, “Not a lot of people know about it but it's gaining in popularity. It is a unique plant in that it can be planted both in the spring, fall and early summer! It is perennial for us in Atlanta. Most plant it in the early fall to over winter and produce new leaves in the spring for harvest at that time.”

Wirosa Cabbage Roundup

Many of the vegetables which are harvested at the Atlanta Botanical Garden such as this ‘Wirosa’ cabbage being removed by Colleen Golden are used in on-site cooking classes and educational programs. “We have a couple of on-staff garden chefs for our season which is from May until October,” Hemmings states. “I showcase what is coming up in the garden and doing really well and leave it to them to come up with really wonderful recipes to share.”

Lacinato Kale

When planting any fall greens like kale, cabbage or lettuce, Hemmings suggests getting them into the ground before October 14. “At that point it’s still warm during the day but you’re getting those cooler nights. Once you get them through the babying period into October, you’re not watering them as much and they have their roots established. They pretty much take care of themselves.”

Swiss Chard To Go

‘Perpetual Spinach’, a type of Swiss chard, is harvested by Kenzie Smith (far left) and Colleen Golden (in background) in the edible garden of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. When it comes to planting leafy greens in early fall, Hemmings reveals that “We’ll start the seeds in the greenhouse and then move them outside, get them acclimated to the weather and then plant them out as 4 inch transplants.”

Metasquoia Renovation

In an area of the Atlanta Botanical Garden which had formerly been the site of some fast-growing, deciduous redwoods, cardoon (on left), horseradish (right) and day lilies (not seen here) were planted as part of a renovation effort to better utilize the space. Regarding the horseradish, Hemmings says, “The greenery is just beautiful. After it dies back after a hard frost we’ll cut the tops and leave the roots there. The other half of the crop we’ll dig, dry and give some to the chef here at the garden to use.”

Botanical Edibles

Some of the vegetables in the Atlanta Botanical Garden are grown in a large raised bed in the design of an amphitheater. “Each fall, mid-spring and summer, we have three change outs with the garden,” says Hemmings. “I’ll bring in extra compost to put some nutrients back into the soil. That way we know what we’re working with in terms of ph levels. We don’t add a ton. We just replace what’s been pushed out.”