The onset of fall weather generally means the end of the vegetable gardening season for many gardeners. Spring crops have long been harvested, and late-season crops such as sweet corn and tomatoes are either done for the year or are reaching the end of their harvest season. Gardeners may have picked and frozen so many beans that they don’t care to see another bean until the following spring. But there are many crops that can be harvested even after the first frost withers the landscape, and a fall vegetable garden can supply plenty of fresh produce for several more weeks or even longer.
Not all crops are suitable for a fall vegetable garden. Crops with a long growing season, such as pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and sweet corn, will not have time to mature before they are overtaken by the first fall frost. Other vegetables, such as onions, need a certain number of daylight hours to produce a crop. But greens and other short-season crops are ideal for a fall vegetable garden.
A fall vegetable garden requires some forethought from the gardener. It may be difficult or impossible to find vegetable starts for a fall vegetable garden at your local nursery, and seed suppliers may have sold their entire stock of your favorite varieties during the spring planting rush. If you plan on growing a fall vegetable garden, you may need to purchase those extra seeds in the spring. Until you’re ready to plant, store the seeds in a cool, dry and dark place to retain their viability.
There are several advantages to growing a fall vegetable garden beside the obvious advantage of growing more food for your table. Some crops have better flavor when they are grown in cooler weather, including cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. In many areas, plant diseases and insect pests are less of a problem in the fall. Rain tends to be more frequent in the fall than it is during the hot summer months, so the gardener can spend less time watering the fall vegetable garden.
Careful timing is important when planting the fall vegetable garden. The gardener must be aware of the average first fall frost date for their area, along with the number of days it takes each fall crop to reach maturity. Keep in mind that the daylight hours are getting shorter as fall approaches, so it may take longer for crops to mature in the fall than they would if planted in the spring when days are getting longer. To determine the best dates to begin planting a fall vegetable garden, it is helpful to add two to three weeks to the number of days to maturity suggested for any particular crop.
A fall crop of lettuce and radishes can be planted twelve to fourteen weeks prior to the average date of the first killing frost. Successive crops may be planted every two to three weeks. Cabbage-family crops may be set out ten to twelve weeks before the first frost, and beet, carrot, pea and scallion seeds may also be planted at this time.
Eight to ten weeks before the first freeze, plant spinach and Asian greens. The final seed sowing may be done six to eight weeks before a frost is expected.
Crops that are suitable for a fall vegetable garden typically have a relatively short growing season, anywhere from thirty days up to eighty days. Some crops such as cabbage that can tolerate a light frost can still be planted even though they have a long growing season.
Vegetables that are suitable for a fall garden include beets, carrots, collards, lettuce, kohlrabi, peas, bush beans, spinach, chard and other greens, turnips and fast-growing radishes. Each of these can be seeded directly in the garden as they all mature fairly quickly.
If you plan on growing broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage or cauliflower in the fall vegetable garden, it is best to either start with small transplants purchased from the farmers’ market or a nursery, or start the seeds yourself indoors twelve to fourteen weeks prior to the first average fall frost date for your area.
Set transplants out in the garden while the weather is still warm as these cabbage family plants will grow too slowly if planted out after the ground has already cooled. Be ready to plant seedlings out when they are about three weeks old, and try to choose an overcast day for planting to help prevent the plants from being shocked by sudden exposure to hot late summer sunlight.
Beet and salad green seeds, on the other hand, should not be planted while the soil is still warmed by summer sunlight. The seeds of these cool season crops will germinate poorly or not at all if the soil temperature is still warmer than 85 degrees. Wait for an early cool spell, or start these seeds indoors and carefully transplant the seedlings outdoors once they have produced their first sets of true leaves.
In all but the coldest climates, garlic should be planted in the fall. Plant garlic cloves in an area of the garden where they may grow undisturbed until harvest time in midsummer. Garlic may be planted at around the time of the first killing frost, and the plants will begin to grow roots even while the soil is getting colder. Shallots and multiplying onions may also be planted at this time. For more information about growing garlic in the garden, go to https://earthwildgardens.com/how-to-grow-garlic/
Keeping the soil moist will encourage seeds to germinate and will also benefit small seedlings. If necessary, provide a soaker hose to maintain soil moisture for the seeds, or keep the soil shaded to prevent the soil from drying out and developing a crust that would prevent seedlings from emerging. A light mulch will shade the soil and help keep it cool while also maintaining moisture, or place a board over the row supported by a brick on each end.
Floating row covers are extremely handy for a fall vegetable garden. Floating row covers draped over tiny seedlings will provide them with some cooling shade in late summer, and when a light frost is expected they will protect tender plants from freezing. If insect pests are a problem in the garden, prevent them from reaching your plants with a floating row cover barrier. Learn more about floating row covers at https://earthwildgardens.com/how-to-protect-plants-with-floating-row-covers/
Crops that are particularly hardy, such as Brussel sprouts, kale, lettuce and other greens, can be kept growing under a floating row cover tunnel even after the snow begins to fly. In mild climates, a fall vegetable garden may even supply food for the table throughout the entire winter.