Feasting Through Fall

Nan sterman headshotIt is always a bit sad to pick the last of the summer’s tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and eggplants. These are my favorite vegetables, in part because of their flavors and in part because they are just so beautiful when they ripen red, orange, yellow, and purple. But then, I remind myself about all the wonderful vegetables that are planted now to eat through fall, winter, and early spring.

As a rule of thumb, any plant whose fruits we eat (botanically, anything with seeds is a fruit, so tomatoes, squash, eggplant, pumpkins, and peppers are fruits) need the long, hot months of summer to ripen, so we plant those in early spring for summer picking.

From fall through early spring, we grow and eat leaves (lettuces, spinach, kale, cabbage), stems (leeks, celery, kohlrabi) roots (carrots, beets, radishes), and so on. We eat the developing flower stalks of broccoli and cauliflower.

It’s time, then, to start those fall veggies. Root vegetables like radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets are best planted from seed, directly into your garden bed or container. Whether you grow in the ground or in raised beds (which is the preferred backyard method in our area), dig in plenty of compost first and dampen the soil.

Carrot seeds and other tiny seeds are hard to spread evenly over a garden bed. So try this; mix the seeds with dry construction sand (not playground sand) or dried coffee grounds in a pint-sized yogurt or cottage cheese container, Mix about one-part seeds to four-parts sand or coffee grounds. Then, scatter the seed mixture over the prepared bed.

Sprinkle a very thin layer of soil over the seeds, with seeds this small, if they are planted much deeper, they might not germinate. Press the soil surface gently with a flat board or the heel of your hand – that ensures that seeds and soil fuse together.

Vegetables that are not root vegetables can be planted from seed or as seedlings. Independent nurseries (those that are locally owned) offer a surprising selection of varieties. Some farmer’s market vendors sell seedlings as well.

I like to start my own seedlings in sterilized plastic six packs or four packs saved from past seedling purchases. I also use pint yogurt or cottage cheese containers that I sterilize too. To sterilize, clean the containers first, then soak for about 20 minutes in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.


I never start seeds in egg cartons. There’s not room for enough soil and it is very hard to keep cardboard egg cartons from drying out too quickly.

If you are planting seeds into containers, use brand new seed starting mix rather than in potting soil and don’t recycle old seed starting mix. Fill the containers with seed starting mix, then dampen it. Label the containers, then plant the seeds.

After you plant seeds, put the containers outside in spot that gets part day sun and is protected from critters. It is best if they are in a place where you can keep an eye on them too. To water, fill a basin of water with an inch or two of water, then set the containers into the basin. Let them sit until the water wicks to the top, then remove them to drain.

When the seedlings are about six weeks old, they should be large enough to be planted in the garden.

To plant seeds directly in the ground or into a raised bed, read the seed packet for the ideal planting depth and width.

As your vegetables grow, fertilize with organic vegetable food. Mulch them with straw and have fun growing your own cool weather feast.

Garden expert, designer, and author Nan Sterman specializes in low water, sustainable, and edible landscapes. Nan hosts A Growing Passion, a show about all the ways that San Diego and California grow. A Growing Passion airs on KPBS television Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Episodes are also posted online at opens in a new windowagrowingpassion.com. Nan is also author of California Gardener’s Guide vII, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest and the upcoming Hot Colors, Dry Garden. More information is at opens in a new windowplantsoup.com.