FOR MOST VEGETABLE GROWERS, early fall is the season of choice. If we've planned and planted well and mother nature has not thrown any serious curve balls our way, we can expect a nice, if brief, overlap of warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, green beans, squash, cucumbers) and those crops that do best when the days are shorter and there's an early morning nip in the air (broccoli, carrots, kale, lettuces, turnips). By September, we also should have a good supply of storage crops—potatoes, garlic, onions, shallots and winter squash—all of which start maturing in the field in mid- and late summer.
It doesn't hurt that the cooler weather of fall puts the public in the mood to buy—and the mood to cook. Gone are the hot, humid days of summer when sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and salad greens are about as much effort as many of us want to put into a meal. Possibly, at some primal level, we're aware that the lean days of winter are not far off. Perhaps the genetic wisdom garnered by our pre-supermarket ancestors recommends that we fortify our bodies with nutritious food while the going is good. The fact that local crops are at their peak in the fall, both in looks and taste, may be a further incentive.
For vegetable growers and vegetable eaters, fall is a gratifying time, but then comes winter and things are not so rosy. Winter does not officially begin until December 21—the shortest day of the year—but for those who farm in the Northeast, it usually looks and feels like winter is closing in by the time Thanksgiving arrives. The fields no longer glisten green in the early sun—whatever color remains is muted and subdued. Among leafy greens, only the hardiest kales and cabbages are hanging on, and they've seen better days, though they still taste good. Root crops, like carrots, celeriac, parsnips and kohlrabi, are likely to still have plenty of life in them (and good flavor, too), so long as they have not been unearthed by deer or subjected to too deep a freeze.
As winter approaches, the challenge farmers and small business people face is to have enough vegetables to warrant staying at a farmers’ market, providing CSA shares, delivering to a food co-op, or whatever it is we do to generate income. In our case, it doesn't pay to drive to New York City in December with just a few crates of potatoes and winter squash—we need more than that to cover the cost of market fees, fuel and labor. Coming up with a sufficient amount and variety of produce to justify keeping the shop open boils down to having a well-considered crop plan with a good representation of storage vegetables and the resources and resolve to carry out that plan—no small job.
A crop plan defines what crops to plant, how much, when and where. The vegetables and herbs that might grace our stand in late fall and winter don't materialize just because we had the foresight to plant them months earlier—most require many hours of weeding, watering and tending throughout the growing season when there is no shortage of things to do.
Assuming everything goes according to plan, as fall turns into winter, our stand at Union Square in Manhattan will have a good representation of cool-weather and storage crops.
Each year, we plant around 1,200 pounds of spuds in late April or early May. We usually grow four varieties that cross the color spectrum: Kennebec, a solid white Maine potato, is our favorite and best producer. We also like Keuka Gold, a yellow-fleshed potato well suited to New York soils and climate. Red Gold sports a red skin and mildly yellow interior, great for boiling and potato salad. Adirondack Blue has a spectacular blue interior and respectable flavor.
Twelve hundred pounds of planted potatoes, if well looked after, should net a harvest of 7,000 to 8,000 pounds. That's enough to take us through the market from late summer into the winter, with perhaps some left over to plant the following spring.
Butternut, acorn, delicata, and several other varieties of winter squash are traditional storage crops and ideal for fall and winter markets. We plant three-quarters of an acre of them every year; they are ready for harvest in September but are not great sellers until cold weather sets in. Sales peak around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Onions and shallots Most cooking onions and shallots are good storers that will last well into the winter (salad onions don't store so well). But these crops take their sweet time to grow and do not compete well with weeds—getting good-sized bulbs can require a lot of work from organic growers who cannot resort to herbicides. On the bright side, organic onions and shallots are in high demand at our markets and sell well throughout the year.
Like kale and collards, cabbages are an excellent fall crop and some varieties store well into the winter. Though not the sexiest vegetable in town, cabbages are gaining in popularity as people discover that a well-grown, local, organic cabbage is more vibrant and tastes superior to the industrial models found in supermarkets. The better storage varieties are slow growers and demand soil with ample fertility.
Our foremost crop has a long storage life. We want it at our stand from our first market in May until our last one right before Christmas, which means we must grow 70,000 plants annually. About 10,000 of these, three or four plants to a bunch, are sold in late spring and early summer as green garlic. Another 10,000 or so are set aside as planting stock for the next year's crop. The main harvest of mature bulbs is ready by mid-July; from then until late December, garlic remains a strong seller at our stand.
Kale and collards
We grow five different types of kale (Lacinato, Rainbow Lacinato, Red Russian, White Russian and Winterbor) and one variety of collard greens. They all excel as fall crops but can be harvested through at least some of the winter if protected or grown in a high tunnel. Like carrots, kale and collards taste sweeter after a frost. We generally have modest amounts of these nutritious greens at our stand in December and seldom bring any home.
Sage, rosemary, thyme These three perennial Mediterranean herbs sell very well once cold weather sets in. The challenge is to have enough of them to meet late-season demand. We've taken to growing all our rosemary and about half our thyme in high tunnels. The protected environment allows them to prosper and survive a harsh winter (sage is much tougher and will do just fine in the open field). Winter savory (which tastes like a peppery thyme) is another hardy perennial herb on our list. It, too, can survive cold weather.
We harvest mesclun salad greens from May until November. In late October, we plant these crops in our high tunnels in the same soil (amended with compost) that nourished tomatoes, peppers and basil a few weeks earlier. The extra warmth the tunnels provide allows the baby greens to flourish. If we get a forecast of an overnight temperature below 25°F, we shield the greens with a blanket of row cover to be on the safe side. In December, fresh, local mesclun is a valuable commodity—at our stand, it's usually all gone by lunchtime.
We've recently begun planting kohlrabi again after a hiatus of several years. It's not a big seller yet because most people are not sure what to do with it (it can be steamed, roasted or sautéed), but it stores well and complements our other winter offerings. We grow a large storage variety called Kossak. Behind its woody skin, it is deliciously crisp and sweet.
We seed about 3,500 row feet of carrots in June and July; our preferred varieties are Danvers and Red Cored Chantenay. They require thinning along with frequent and careful weeding until their tops reach a height of about 12 inches. Thereafter their maintenance requirements drop but they still need their water. Carrots taste sweeter after they have endured a few frosts; they can store well in the soil, even after the ground has frozen (but, if left out too long, they'll often be nibbled on by voles and field mice). We dig fresh carrots for market on an as-needed basis until late November, then we harvest the remainders and store them in our root cellar. They sell easily throughout the fall and into winter.
Though not a glamorous or highly popular crop, turnips sell reasonably well and complement the other vegetables at our stand once cold weather arrives. Purple Top White Globe and Gold Ball are our standard late season varieties. We plant about 1,500 row feet of them. They go nicely in soups and stews.
This uncommon root vegetable is catching on more each year. Its big, round root has a celery-like flavor and the texture of a carrot. It is a very slow grower—we start celeriac in our greenhouse in April, transplant it to the field in late May and generally don't harvest the first mature plants for sale until well into September. But it's a good keeper: It will hold in the field until late November, then store in a root cellar for another couple of months. It has become a popular cold-weather item at our stand.
We stop going to market just before Christmas, usually because we're running out of vegetables to sell and it gets a bit cold to stand outside all day. (A few dozen less-than-perfect Christmas trees round out our December offerings, just the ticket for customers who prefer not to run with the herd.) But for hardier farmers, with greater production capacity than we have, many of the crops mentioned above can be available through much of the winter and, in some cases, even into spring.