A Kitchen Garden for Fall and Winter

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We’ve finally cracked the heat barrier here in Houston, and though summer does not go down without a good fight in this part of Texas, October is the month that our weather makes the transformation from Guam-like heat and humidity to some amazingly beautiful, “California coastal” temperate days. Now that our evenings are a tad cooler (i.e., no longer in the 80’s), I’ve started gathering the makings for a fall kitchen garden.

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We keep a garden almost year round, planting in March and October. And because its right there, outside the laundry room window, the garden’s aesthetic appeal is almost as important to me as the produce I get from it. You might call our garden a potager, which is the French equivalent of an English country flower garden, but with vegetables and herbs. As opposed to planting uniform rows of cabbage or cauliflower, a potager, is a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers in which plants are intermingled, sometimes in formal patterns, sometimes in more casual forms, for a contrast in height, color and shape. So this is what I strive for, though results may vary from season to season.

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With the growing societal emphasis on locally sourced foods has come greater choice and quality for the home veg gardener. It’s easier than ever to make a dash to the neighborhood home improvement store, even the grocery store, and find a fairly nice variety of herbs, as well as tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables in the spring. For fall, however, the selection at these places is a bit meagre. So this week, on a cloudy Monday, I grabbed a raincoat from the closet and headed to The Arbor Gate garden center, just west of Tomball, Texas.

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There are only a handful of nurseries in this area that really know the soil, the climate and the regional plant varieties that grow well here. Arbor Gate has that depth of knowledge, and they have a wonderland of a layout. I love to stroll through their collections of pottery, architectural pieces and whimsical garden benches.

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There’s a long, shallow “pond” running alongside the nursery, with ducks paddling by and an assortment of spinning wind ornaments lining the waterfront. (And they were spinning like crazy as the overcast Monday turned stormy!) There are two or three sleepy cats that we often come upon, curled up among the fruit trees and perennials. (Thanks goodness for those felines, because on the days that I am here with my daughter, they buy me a little more time to make my plant selections before patience runs thin.) When I visited this week, autumn was starting to show itself in small ways. Potted mums were on the verge of bursting into full bloom. There were cyclamen and pansies interspersed with the last of the summer annuals.

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This fall, I am planting a kitchen garden full of “old friends,” the herbs, lettuces and greens I use almost every day in cooking dinner. They are reliable growers in this region and don’t seem to mind my “hands-off” gardening methods.

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It’s hard to go wrong with lettuces in the fall. They like our mild, spring-like fall in this part of Texas, and they provide immediate gratification–just clip and eat for supper. I chose green and red varieties of Romaine and a perky bunch of butter lettuce. There was also a passle of arugula, some more deeply lobed, some with paddle-shaped leaves, so I placed a mix of these in my little red wagon.

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I came across a table full of purple bok choy that was exploding with color. Next to it were even more varieties of Asian cabbages and other greens. Recently, I’ve been on an Asian greens kick (see our Vancouver 2 and Flavor posts), so I loaded up on joi sum a white-stemmed bok choy that is supposed to be easy to grow and slow to bolt. (I can already taste those stir-fried greens topped with red chili paste!) Near the bok choy, variegated leaf lettuce shared a table with a field of potted strawberry plants. I would like to try strawberries again, maybe this coming spring, if I can keep the squirrels in our yard from facing off with me, UFC style, the way they did the last time I tried them. (Very disturbing!)

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Saving the best for last, I made my way through the herb section, where you can drive yourself crazy with indecision, because there are so many herbs to choose among and so many varieties of thyme, basil, sage, oregano and others. I headed straight for the cilantro. Mine bolted this past spring almost as soon as I stuck it in the ground. I trimmed it valiantly for several weeks, but it would not relent and went to seed. Which is a shame, because I use a ton of it at home, coarsely chopped and added to salsas, pico de gallo, soups and stews. We’ll see if cooler fall weather brings a better crop.

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There were pots of French thyme and flat-leaf parsley that I added to the wagon, which was now completely full. I was done just as the wind and rain started whipping through the tables. Small pots were rolling across cobblestone walkways. People were heading for cover. Then the storm calmed, and in its wake was a gentle, cool breeze. Hello fall!

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Back at home, I unloaded everything and surveyed the current state of my raised beds. Some of what was already growing was left from the spring and summer. I just couldn’t part with my cantaloupe vines. They had sprouted back after we pulled them recently. The small plants have blooms on them already, so I’m letting them stay for now. Same with the basil, which reseeded itself from the big, leafy bush that finally succumbed to the August heat. Now I have a whole bed of its babies, and I have not had the heart to even thin them out, they just seem so sure of themselves. Okay then, the whole bed is yours!

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Now the week is nearly done, and after much weeding, arranging and perspiration, the garden is mostly in place. As the days grow cooler and crisper, we’ll all enjoy pulling up the laundry room shade each morning to check its progress, and we’ll hopefully enjoy a small harvest of delights each night at supper as the days grow shorter and we head into winter.

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The Arbor Gate

15635 FM 2920

Tomball, Texas 77377

(281) 351-8851

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