by JULIANA BLEDSOE
Turning leaves have begun to hit the ground, and with the first day of autumn just three days away, cool nights are beginning to foreshadow the change in Northern Nevada’s Truckee Meadows. Temperatures have been sinking to the low 50s in the early morning hours, signaling that the time is right for preparing fall home gardens; time to cultivate a successful garden is limited in this region due to the short growing season in a dry, elevated climate.
“Some people may have already noticed frost damage on some of their plants,” Lisa Braginpon, plant doctor for Moana Nursery in Reno, Nev., said.
However, Braginpon insists that the growing season is not over, “We think of spring and fall as two distinct seasons to take advantage of in the Truckee Meadows.”
From the ground up, there is much to attend to in the garden this time of year. She encourages local gardeners to augment the difficult sand, clay, and rock found in our region with 2-4 inches of compost or other organic matter at least twice each season.
While late summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and summer squash are still yielding, the difficult high-desert growing environment in our region quickly ushers in cold nights this time of year. Nonetheless, taking steps to insulating these existing crops can significantly extend their growing season.
“There are all kinds of things you can do to help [account for] the up and down nature of our climate,” Braginpon said.
She noted the first frost generally falls around Sept. 15, but recommends that with the help of harvest guards or row covers, gardeners can extend the life of these summer crops well into October.
“The best row covers are made out of a spun fabric, because they are relatively light for their ability to hold in heat,” she said.
These products are essentially incorporated fabric blends, that when secured over plants, maintain a microclimate and also help hold in moisture. While they are available at local garden shops, Braginpon said that household items like an old bed sheet will suffice. Plastic sheeting can also be used, but it must be secured firmly away from foliage because leaves in contact with plastic covers are more susceptible to frost damage.
Jake O’Farrell from Hungry Mother Organics, an organic plants and produce grower in Minden, Nev., also stressed the importance of applying mulch to the base of plants for the same reason. Natural mulch such as straw or wood chips not only protects plant roots from cold as weather turns, but also helps retain moisture and suppress weeds.
While battening down the hatches is essential to preserve existing plants, there are a number of cool weather crops that can also be planted at this time. Vegetables that are traditionally planted in spring sometimes struggle in this region because intense summer heat sets in too quickly.
O’Farrell said fall staples at Hungry Mother Organics also include: kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, carrots, beets, radishes, cauliflower, cabbage, and “most root crops”.
“These crops tend to do well here in the fall, though,” Braginpon said. “It’s a great time to plant.” She recommends crops like lettuce and spinach, because they have a quick turnaround.
While Braginpon suggests that slower-to-mature crops like broccoli and cauliflower should have already been started, she said it’s still worth giving them a try.
But with the return of the mild temperatures of autumn also comes some unwelcome garden visitors.
“The kind of predictable pest that we see tends to be the return of spring pests such as aphids and powdery mildew,” Braginpon said.
O’Farrell said that aphids tend to be the primary problem with leafy greens—Hungry Mother Organics specializes in natural growing methods, and O’Farrell suggests spraying a soap solution to fight off these insects. (He recommends 2-3 teaspoons of Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap diluted into a gallon of water.) Also, opting for the peppermint scent provides additional pest deterrent. This can then be sprayed directly onto aphids and other pests, which coats their exoskeleton, causing them to suffocate.
Braginpon said powdery mildew can affect all garden plants, and thrives during this period of warm days and cool nights.
“It looks like flour dusted over the leaves,” she said. “It can start to shut down the vascular system of the plant.”
She said gardeners should use fungicidal sprays containing sulfur and copper to combat this common problem. Braginpon also recommends that gardeners clear out areas where leaves or other debris have collected, as pests can winter over in these protected areas.
While Braginpon said she commiserates with gardeners struggling against difficult growing conditions, nevertheless, she urged that taking measures to stave off the elements can significantly improve harvests—especially if temperatures stay warm.
“One thing we always tell people is that things can change,” she said. “The two things that gardeners need here are patience and optimism.”