Fall is the best time of year in Milwaukee. The weather is pleasant, lacking both the extreme humidity of August and the biting cold of December. The air is cool and crisp in the morning, but warm and light in the afternoon. The leaves are starting to change from their vibrant greens to glowing golds, earthy browns, and eye-catching crimsons.
Fall is also a joyful time for the farmer – when most of the crops are ready to harvest, ending the summer season with a bounty of greens, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, and more. However, it is far from the end of the growing season; there’s still plenty of time to harvest giant, rotund pumpkins (for cooking or for carving), hardy root vegetables, and cool-weather kales and cabbages.
The signature fall crops are long-anticipated and well worth the wait. Pumpkins and squash, for example, are usually planted in late May and can grow through October. There is no greater sense of pride in a garden than going out to find a baby pumpkin growing from what used to be a flower on a vine. You check your pumpkin often, watching the progress of its growth, until one day it is orange and jack-o-lantern sized.
Fall crops are often sweeter than their summer cousins as well. There’s scientific proof behind this: as the weather gets colder, plants convert starches into sugars as a natural cold protectant. Sometimes, these cold-conditioned vegetables are different colors because of different growing conditions, like the crisp, “Red Russian” kale, a favorite kale variety that originates from Siberia. At a time when many locals are saddened by the cooler weather and fewer daylight hours, the vegetable selection actually becomes more exciting.
The unsuspecting champions of the fall growing season are root vegetables. These plants are so tough in their design because most of their mass is still in the ground. Root vegetables have an extremely smart growing technique, as soil is highly insulating and can keep the plant warm even into into November and early December, depending on the region. That means you can still grow radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets while the leaves are falling.
Technically, the growing season doesn’t have to end until the true end of fall, around November. We gardeners just have to change our mindset: the crops we grow, our growing techniques, and the kinds of meals we cook with the vegetables from our gardens.
We switch from tomatoes and peppers to pumpkins and turnips. We find clever ways to protect our precious plants, like blanketing them with freshly fallen leaves or building cold frames. We learn how to make new fall recipes, like squash soups and roasted beets. This is not the end of homegrown produce for the year; it’s simply a time of transition.