September 21, 2018

Best Crops for Fall in the School Garden

On Martha's Vineyard we don't start school until after labor day. People often question what it is we have growing in our gardens in the fall, as many plants can start to fizzle out in late August. Having a garden that students help plant in the spring, is relatively easy to maintain in the summer, and is productive in the fall school year is a difficult balance.

After years of trial and error, here are some of our favorite crops that are currently flourishing in the fall school gardens - for fresh picking, cafeteria preparation, and seed saving. 

Crops to plant in spring, harvest in fall: 

Parsley -  Plant in early spring and harvest till frost and beyond. It makes a great chimichurri sauce and children of all ages generally like to eat leaves right from the plant. 

Celery - Establish in the spring with plenty of water and celery will last long into the fall season with protection from frost. We harvest single stems which keep the plant producing more. Students really seem to love fresh celery, and its also great for the cafeteria to add to soups and potato salads. 

Parsnips - Establish in the spring with plenty of water and wait until after a few frosts for a sweet treat. In root vegetable tastings, raw parsnips are often the favorite! Not to mention they are much easier to germinate than carrots. Something to consider of parsnips is they have a very long harvest time, but for a school garden that has minimal summer care, this is an advantage.

Mini bell peppers* - Unlike tomatoes, peppers' harvest season can extend into late fall right before frosts. The mini varieties are fun and colorful, great to stuff with a bit of goat cheese or add into a salsa recipe. 

Ground cherries* - Hands down the most favorite fruit in the school garden! These plants produce tons of little fruits late in the season, and once they fall to the ground stay safe in their husks for harvesting at your leisure.

Cherry tomatoes - Cherry tomatoes tend to last longer into the season than large tomato varieties, and children can at least pick for the first couple weeks of school. It's nice to have a few cherry tomato plants in the garden, but don't plant too many since they do fizzle out quickly. 

Basil - Under and around the cherry tomatoes plant basil seedlings in very late spring or early summer. If you keep the basil regularly picked the plant will get bigger. This is a great crop to grow for the cafeteria to make pesto with.

Mexican sour gherkins* - these mini cucumbers are actually not cucurbits at all, and are not as sensitive to cold weather as their look alike relatives. They also have very few pests. They are abundant with tastes varying from sweet to sour to bitter. They are a great crop for quick pickling and so very cute! They take a couple months to really start climbing but be sure to give them a trellis. 

Sweet potatoes - It takes a couple months for these beauties to start vining out, and when they do they are unstoppable! We plant slips in mid June and let their vines crawl all over the garden. This could be a great crop for giving away to a food pantry as part of a service project.

Beans - We plant dry beans last week of school in June for seed saving, and we plant green beans the last week of July for crispy snacks for back to school. 

Nasturtiums - Children love to eat the leaves and flowers for a spicy treat. I love that they are carefree and drought tolerant in the summer! Plus the flowers are a perfect choice for studying pollination.

Lettuce - Let late spring heads go to seed over the summer for thousands of seeds to harvest in the fall! It's hard to beat that kind of abundance. 

Long lasting fall flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, and calendulas are a must have for school gardens. They attract pollinators to the garden, add a beautiful pop of fall color, and are easy to save seed from. We also grow native milkweed and butterfly weed in our gardens for monarch caterpillars and butterflies.

Start in summer, harvest in fall:

Kale and Broccoli - Start brassica seedlings in mid summer for a fall and winter harvest. Better yet, partner with a farm for an extra tray of their fall crop seedlings. (Thank you Whippoorwill Farm!) Unfortunately you need to plant the seedlings out before school starts - read below for more information about timing.

Carrots - if you can get your carrots to germinate in dry July, then lucky you! However, this is tough crop to germinate without proper summer irrigation set up. 

*Interested in seeds? 

We have ground cherries, mini bell peppers, and mini cucumbers saved from our school gardens that we would be happy to share for next spring. Contact katie@igimv.org if you're interested, or if you have questions about fall school gardens. 

Look for our next blog post about overwintering in the garden!

Katie