Although some folks say Labor Day is the “end of summer,” that’s certainly not true in temperate North American gardens! We’re harvesting, storing the bounty, saving seeds, dividing plants, fertilizing the lawn and—yes—planting for a “second summer.” Come join us in the garden—and also learn which fall vegetables to plant now!
Heads up, North Americans! The season will be with us for a few weeks until the autumnal equinox on September 22, and then come the cooler temperatures. Gardening in the fall is so much more relaxing. And planting after Labor Day leads to a bountiful harvest for many regions!
Harvest the Bounty
Seeing the plants ripen and finally bear fruit is most exciting. At this time of year, make a daily trip around you garden.
Depending on where you live, you may be picking beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, winter squash, and more!
One Labor Day weekend, I spent the entire day digging up ‘Russian Banana’ fingerling potatoes, ‘All Blue’ and ‘Red Rose’ potatoes.
Plus, we picked Asian pears, apples, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. It took three times as long to clean and store everything as it did to pick the huge harvest.
Image: When refrigerated, apples can remain tasty for up to six months.
Preserve the Harvest
One of the greatest joys of edible gardening is being able to store, freeze, dry and even can excess crops for winter enjoyment. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel a deep kinship to my ancestors who came to this country, raised large families, and fed them from either the home gardens of my Hungarian side of the family or the farm my Irish-Cherokee grandfather worked.
I picked over two bushels of Asian pears—far more than we could eat, give away, and share with the hungry. The crisp, juicy fruits only keep about six weeks in the refrigerator and they must be stored in sealed bags to prevent dehydration. I hate to lose this exquisite fruit treat, so I borrowed a dehydrator from a friend to dry wedges of the pears into fruit crisps.
When it came to my Brussels sprouts, I blanched the sprouts to prepare for freezing, I had grown five Brussels sprouts stalks, and it took hours to cut, trim and blanch them all, but I have enough of the tasty vegetables for the entire winter in my freezer.
In addition, I scrubbed carrots and potatoes for storage, and I dipped all my fruit in a bath of water with a tablespoon of bleach to kill any lingering bacteria or fungi before refrigerating.
Next, I picked all the ripe tomatoes in the garden, roasted them and made spaghetti sauce, which I froze in pint containers.
It was a long day’s work, but satisfying.
Build a Root Cellar: Try, Try Again!
Years ago, I read about how to make an instant outdoor root cellar and wanted to try it, given that my basement has cement floors and is partially heated, like most modern homes. With my husband’s help, we constructed a simple root cellar one Labor Day weekend.
He dug a deep hole in which we set a new 32-gallon plastic trash can. In it, I layered damp sand and root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and beets, finishing with a thick layer of damp sand. The top was attached and covered with two feet of shredded leaves and straw. It didn’t work. Moisture leaked into the can and iced the vegetables. Everything rotted when thawed.
Image: Each heirloom potato variety has a different flavor, but they’re all terrific!
The following year, I set up an area in the basement, in the coldest and darkest area, with plastic bins lined with a layer of damp sand. Here, I’m storing the potatoes and carrots. Onions, winter squash, and a couple of pumpkins will be stored adjacent in a dry area when they are harvested. Apples go upstairs in an extra refrigerator, because they exude ethylene gas that makes other vegetables and fruits ripen rapidly and rot.
Labor Day weekend is a very good time to divide summer-blooming perennials.
A hole or dead area in the center of the planting area is a sign that a perennial needs to be divided. Other cues are poor flowering or pale foliage.
You want to divide once flowers have stopped their flowering well before winter. This allows the divisions to become well established and spent the winter on root growth before the springtime.
Usually, it’s a good idea to divide most perennials every few years, although some never need to be divided and others such as mums could benefit from dividing every year. This year, I needed to divide my bearded irises. See how to divide irises.
Image: Divided irises. A lot of work, but worth it!
For early-blooming perennials, you can also collect the seed pods and store them to sow next year! Store seeds from lupines, columbines, and others in the refrigerator.
If there is one time to fertilize a cool-season lawn, it’s around Labor Day.
Also, seed or reseed any bare batches now; this is a better time than spring. Weather conditions going into autumn favor growth of grass, especially growth of their roots. See lawn care tips.
Plant Shrubs and Trees
As temperatures cool, you can plant shrubs, trees, perennials, and even some annual vegetables.
For shrubs and trees, prepare your soil with organic matter such as compost. Ensure the enriched soil is wide enough for the growing area, not just for the planting hole.
Gardening on or after Labor Day leads to a bountiful harvest! In the North, there are many cool-season plants to enjoy, including lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow almost anything they like, aside from most heat-loving veggies!
Below are 10 crops that grow quickly, in time to mature before the frost kicks in; they are extra hardy, verdant, and longer-lasting. Note that many are leafy greens that can even withstanding the frost through part of winter.
Remember to consider a seed packet’s listed “days to maturity” and back out from your frost date in order to find your planting dates. Also take a look at the Almanac’s last Fall Planting Dates.
Days to Maturity: 20-40 days
Days to Maturity: 35-65 days
Days to Maturity: 35-65 days
4. Leaf Lettuce
Days to Maturity: 40-60 days
5. Mesclun Lettuce
Days to Maturity: 30-45 days
6. Mustard Greens
Days to Maturity: 25-40 days
7. Pak Choi
Days to Maturity: 30-40 days
Recommended Variety: Toy Choi
Days to Maturity: 30-40 days
9. Swiss Chard
Days to Maturity: 30-50 days
Days to Maturity: 50-60 days
Other vegetables to consider (depending on your climate) are: beets, beans, kohlrabi, peas, and green onions.
Plant a winter cover crop in areas of the garden as they become vacant through mid-October. Cover crops are an excellent way to keep your soil protected, avoid erosion, and give nutrients back to the land for a better growing season in the spring. Winter rye is a common winter cover crop and you can find the seeds at garden and farm stores. See the Almanac’s chart on cover crops.
What are you doing in the garden this time of year? How do you preserve the harvest? We’d love to hear from you!