Ask most anyone who lives in this part of the world to name their favorite month of the year, and the odds are excellent their answer will be either May or October. Both have a great deal to recommend them, and for those closely attuned to nature’s enduring rhythms, they stand out among the 12 months of the year in noteworthy fashion.
May’s greening-up time brings the onset of another annual cycle of rebirth, growth, fecundity, and bounty from the good earth. October, on the other hand, is marked by the conclusion of the time of growth with harvesting, freezing, and canning the last rounds of summer’s bounty along with a final spectacular fling as nature adorns her brightest colors before dormancy and death.
These majestic months share another thing in common — they are magical for the home gardener. May garners the most attention but in our part of the world, October also holds rewards for those who love the feel of dirt on their hands, the smell of freshly tilled earth, the sight of flourishing plants, and the taste of nourishing foodstuffs nurtured from seed or seedling to on-the-table perfection. It offers, in short, a feast for the senses. Add fall’s comfortable temperatures, low humidity, fairly stable weather, and a surprising array of vegetables that flourish at this season to the equation — suddenly autumn agriculture beckons in bewitching fashion.
If all this sounds like an oft-overlooked gift from the horticultural gods, one cautionary note needs to be sounded. Many of the vegetables listed can be harvested or reach peak production in October, but most require planting in late August or September when summer’s withering heat is still with us. That translates to some work in sweat-inducing temperatures along with special measures to give new growth a helping hand until, as my Grandpa Joe used to put it, the plants “take holt.”
With that caveat regarding sweaty brows having been duly tendered, salute the fall season by recognizing that for the gardener it can be a time almost as joyous as spring. All of South Carolina, except a small portion of the state’s most mountainous area, lies within climate Zone 8. However, varying microclimates exist thanks to factors such as proximity to the coast or larger lakes along with the lay of the land. South faces in hilly areas, for example, get more sunshine and are a bit warmer. Your best sources regarding the particular area where you cultivate vegetables are practical experience, input from longtime local gardeners, advice from your local feed-and-seed store, and the wisdom of state or federal agricultural agents in your area.
You face the seeming conundrum of planting crops that will be doing most of their growth in brisker weather — after all, that’s why they are called cool weather vegetables — when it is hot. That means careful thought and planning commensurate with your preparations for the traditional spring garden are mandatory. Here are a bunch of pointers, but as is true for anything you undertake as a gardener, from a few indoor plants to a small orchard or vineyard you want to last a lifetime, nothing supplants just doing it. Get your hands dirty, try new vegetables, experiment with various techniques, and literally learn as you grow.
Getting Plants Started
A few key steps are in order for any directly seeded vegetable. These do not include those involving nursery-raised plants, plants you have personally started, or what old-timers usually call “sets,” which are multiplying onions, shallots, and, if you want to give fall potatoes a try, chunks of cut-up tubers. Make sure the ground is well prepared. Unless you are growing on a quite large scale, that means putting a tiller to good use with follow-up hand tools work; or in cases where you are using beds or containers for planting, just use hand tools. You can never go wrong with incorporating plenty of humus from a compost pile, mulch you have set aside, or that topsoil you purchased.
Take particular care when sowing tiny seeds, and those for many fall vegetables fit this description. One tip that can be helpful in getting even distribution, thereby avoiding too much crowding or need for thinning, is to mix dry sand with your seed to make dispersal a bit easier. Placing this mixture in an old salt shaker with sizeable holes, as opposed to sowing from the palm of your hand, will also help.
Similarly, cover seeds with care — 2 inches of soil atop the miniscule seeds of mustard greens or turnips will entomb them so deeply as to make sprouting highly unlikely. One approach that is quite effective in loose, friable soil involves merely tamping down seed with the bottom side of a garden rake. Alternatively, consider a sparse sprinkling of topsoil spread by hand along the row or bed after you scatter seeds. Either way, keep the soil damp until sprouting, and in this regard, an old-fashioned water can with a sprinkler head comes in mighty handy.
A gentle touch is also required for transplants, which you can start inside, in a shaded spot outside that gets little direct sun, or buy from garden centers. The latter usually have popular plants such as cabbage and broccoli, but for other vegetables as well as unusual varieties of even common ones, you will likely need to grow your own settings. For this convenient kits are available with pre-mixed soil and fertilizer, which require nothing but the addition of seed and water along with subsequent care until ready to transplant. Alternatively, you can fill saved drink cups, small clay pots, other receptacles, or even make your own seed flats.
When time for transplanting arrives, and for a week or two afterward, some tender, loving care is in order. Make sure to water liberally at the outset and keep the ground moist until the transplant gives ample indication of being well established. Up to that point a bit of shade, such as having the row next to tall existing plants or maybe some broken limbs offering relief from direct sunlight, is in order.
Late-Season Garden Protection
Similarly, as you move from planting to growth and then maturity, weather will be getting colder and the likelihood of frost or even a hard freeze will be increasing. Some plants such as collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens actually benefit from a bit of frost in terms of taste, but others will need protection. That can be provided with overnight cover if a hard freeze is predicted, mulch, use of black plastic to “catch” and retain a bit of heat, and other measures. With a bit of luck some fall vegetables will continue to yield, especially if harvested on a regular basis so as to encourage new growth and delay bolting, until the coming of next spring. Among these are turnips (greens and roots), mustard, kale, chard, broccoli (side shoots after the main head is harvested), and Brussels sprouts.
Dealing with Pests
Garden pests come in all forms and sizes including invisible problems such as root rot and plant diseases; myriad plant-munching insects; and animal adversaries including rabbits, groundhogs, squirrels, and deer. When it comes to the latter, I’ve fought an ongoing 40-year war with white-tailed deer, one where I lose a skirmish and sometimes a major battle every time I let my guard down. If I tried to write a one-sentence history of this conflict, it would read: “In the end, the deer are always triumphant.”
Yet it isn’t just deer that require constant vigilance, and fortunately many readers won’t face white-tailed woes. That is not true for other problem critters. Many insect populations are at annual peaks just when fall vegetables begin to grow well, and cabbage worms, aphids, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, and a host of other six-legged or many-footed pests can do damage in a hurry. Constant checking along with taking immediate action is necessary. Keeping rows well hoed, mulching where needed, and making sure plants get sufficient moisture and nutrients to fight back are all beneficial.
As is true of any type of gardening, the correlation between expended effort and end results is a close one. Hard work alone won’t produce a fine fall garden because knowledge, experience, and constant learning form part of the overall picture. However, neglect or half-hearted maintenance once things have been planted is an almost guaranteed formula for failure. When everything comes together thanks to plenty of sweat equity, sound timing, and a program of consistent care, the results can be spectacular. One of my fondest recollections of boyhood focuses on taking a seat at Grandma Minnie’s well-laden table and gazing out over the fall dinner fare awaiting us.
Her kitchen wizardry produced an array of dishes directly from autumn crops. Meat wasn’t an everyday staple on her table, although many dishes would be seasoned with streaked meat and there might be a few slices of that salt-laced delicacy fried until completely crisp. Mainly though, Grandma’s meals at this season consisted of fall vegetables, and they were offered in abundance. There would be “kilt” lettuce with fall onions or scallions chopped up in the salad and fried streaked meat crumbled over them before piping hot grease was poured into the bowl immediately prior to consumption to “kill” it. Radishes pulled from the ground not an hour before would accompany the salad as a side item. There would be a large bowl of what we simply called greens — usually a mixture of mustard and turnips with diced bits of the latter’s roots blended in before the addition of seasoning to the pot in which they were stewed. Then there was pot liquor, a cabbage dish given a bit of heat from flakes of dried hot peppers and flavor from the streaked meat, which seemed almost omnipresent. Add a bowl of steamed broccoli or maybe Brussels sprouts, along with a pone of cracklin’ cornbread (again, a way of getting a bit of meat into a meal), and maybe baked sweet potatoes or a dish of candy roasters with butter and brown sugar mixed in, and the world looked mighty bright to a greedy-gut youngster.
Grandpa would provide a short blessing, always concluding with the same words: “You’uns see what’s before you. Eat hearty!” Rest assured he was a trencherman of the first magnitude. Between his admonition and example, amply fortified by the wonder of what Grandma provided, I knew how to do justice to her autumnal fare. Mind you, I always left just enough room for a fried pie or piece of stack cake made using apples we had grown and dried. As longtime South Carolina Poet Laureate Archibald Rutledge put it in the title of one of his many books: “Those Were the Days.” Thankfully, with our climate and display of some gardening gumption, we can still enjoy this delicious slice of yesteryear.
Checklist of Fall Vegetables
An impressive variety of autumn vegetables can be grown in South Carolina. Most years they will be productive into December or even into the New Year. Some of the hardy ones will last right on into spring, especially with a little extra care or protection during cold spells.
Beets (and beet tops)
Green beans (marginal, but worth a try)
Lettuce (leaf and head)
Potatoes (iffy, but try them)
Turnips (and turnip greens)
Jim Casada is a longtime freelance writer with an even lengthier love for gardening. He is the author of 18 books, the latest of which is A Smoky Mountain Boyhood. Mountain Fixin’s is his forthcoming food memoir.