Our fall gardens really can get started as early as spring when we sow seeds that take many months to mature (hello Brussels sprouts), but July and August present even more opportunities to plant crops that will be ready to harvest come September, October and even later. To share her best tips for succession planning and planting for fall, my returning guest this week is Meg Cowden of the Seed to Fork blog.
Meg is an organic gardener in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area in Minnesota, which is in USDA hardiness zone 4b, where air temperatures dip to -25°F in winter and snow in April is common. Despite her relatively short growing season, Meg grows an abundance of vegetables by starting seeds indoors very early and using low tunnels to beat frosts. Among Meg’s gardening goals is to grow crops that store well after the first frost of fall. And “storing” can mean stashed in a root cellar or kept in place in the garden until she is ready to cook or can it.
When I saw Meg’s recent garden expansion, my jaw hit the ground. This year, Meg and her husband took the plunge to renovate their garden. Now, it’s somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of an acre, and it’s a sight to behold.
Meg has a vegetable gardening book with Timber Press planned for late winter 2022. It’s titled “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat: Grow a Bounty of Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Mastering the Art of Succession Planting.” Not only did she write the book, but she also did all of the photography herself. I have to say that Meg’s writing is a joy to read — it’s full of information, and her heart and soul come through too.
Meg is always encouraging gardeners to examine what they love to eat and what they gravitate toward. “The beauty of the garden is to be able to really get in touch with eating seasonally,” she says, adding that growing a spring, a summer and a fall garden really helps to re-examine the flavors of foods at their peak.
For a list of the best edible crops for harvest in autumn, you can download my new free resource, the Fall Garden Edibles Checklist. It’s a handy guide that breaks down fall crops by the right time to plant them. You can also download Meg Cowden’s Sowing Guide for Continuous Harvest for a quick-reference guide to succession planting.
Certain crops absolutely must be harvested before the first frost of fall to remain viable, such as tomatoes and peppers. But for crops that can tolerate a few light frosts or even a hard frost with the help of row cover, Meg is not in a rush to pick everything. The gardening season doesn’t have to end when the first hard frost comes, she says. “The frost is a transition — it’s not an end.”
The fall is a slowdown, a time to relax and enjoy the garden more, Meg says. She advises thinking of the garden as a refrigerator. Kale, carrots, potatoes and a number of other crops will stay fresh in cool autumn weather, so there is no need to bring most fall crops indoors or stash them in a root cellar right away.
“In the fall, the garden waits for you,” Meg says. “More than demanding your attention, it invites your attention.”
The same leafy crops and brassicas that bolt (aka go to seed) in summer won’t do that in fall as the days are getting cooler and shorter. Kale, lettuce, arugula and spinach can withstand a frost, so they are forgiving about when you harvest them.
What Meg Works on in Spring and Summer for Fall Harvest
Meg’s fall Brussels sprouts were planted indoors at the end of April and planted out in May around Memorial Day. By early July, she is hardening off celery, and her green cabbage, red cabbage, savoy cabbage, cauliflower and romanesco are already going. July is also when she starts bok choy and kohlrabi.
Meg finds that cauliflower is so much slower to grow than broccoli in the spring and fall, so she is sure to have cauliflower started from seed in June rather than July.
Using and Building on Last Year’s Notes
Meg keeps detailed notes on when she starts seeds and when she transplants them. The following year, she uses those dates as her guideposts for a planting schedule, with the benefit of hindsight because she saw what grew best and what struggled.
If she sows a cool-season crop in summer and it bolts, she adds to her notes that the following year she should sow it two weeks later. Conversely, if she plants too late, the crop may not receive enough daylight hours to grow — this is called the “Persephone period,” when there are fewer than 10 hours of daylight a day — so she’ll note to plant that crop earlier next year.
Of course, one year is not the same as the next, so the correct planting time is always a moving target. Climate change also leads to unpredictability. Meg says to work around climate change, it’s important to plant diversely. That means planting an array of crops because some will do well while others do poorly. If you put all your efforts into one crop, you could have some serious disappointment coming. But if you diversify, there will be successes to celebrate even as some crops fail. Trying something yourself is the most powerful teacher there is, Meg says. Trial and error will make you a better gardener.
Vegetables that Take All Season to Produce
A number of crops that are harvested in fall take a really long time to mature, so there is little wiggle room when it comes to planting time. Brussels sprouts, for one, take 80–100 days to mature and need a lot of space. The upside is they are incredibly cold-hardy. Meg reports that she was harvesting Brussels sprouts in 20°F last fall.
Onions and garlic are two crops that Meg plants in the fall to be harvested the following year. Potatoes are considered by many to be a crop that is early to be harvested, but Meg leaves the tubers in the ground for an extended period of time. The extra weeks allow the tubers to cure so they will store better once harvested.
The Benefits of Indoor Seed Starting Year-Round
In late winter and early spring, many gardeners start seeds indoors. Once the danger of frost has passed, they transplant the seedlings outdoors and direct sow every crop that comes later. But for Meg, seed-starting is a year-round activity to enable her succession planting.
During the summer, garden soil may be too warm for the liking of many seeds and seedlings. Meg points out that her seed-starting soil indoors is cooler and she can regulate the soil moisture indoors more easily. The indoor environment is also free of cabbage moths and other pests that can devastate tender seedlings.
“I’m able to just take those first three or four weeks and really control these plants and give them the best possible start,” Meg says. “And so when they are garden ready, they are really strong and very much set up to withstand pest pressure.”
Meg says a 90° heatwave often happens at the time she is transplanting her fall garden. That heat is a stumbling block for gardeners who want to plant cool-season crops. Who could imagine planting cabbage on a 90° day? Well, Meg says, Midwest organic farmers start their seeds in June and plant them in the ground in July for fall harvest. They do this professionally, and they know they can’t wait for cooler days to transplant. The crops need an early enough start, or they will never reach maturity.
Fall Vegetables that Grow Quickly
A number of brassicas grow quickly so they can be planted much closer to the first frost date than brassicas like cabbage and cauliflower, which need a lot of time to form heads. Bok choy, kohlrabi, broccoli rabe and mustard greens are all brassicas that mature in a shorter window.
Outside of brassicas, there are radishes and salad turnips as well as spinach, arugula and other leafy greens. Spinach seeds are the last seeds that Meg planted last fall, and she plans to do it again this year because the spinach had enough time to grow true leaves and withstood snow and cold.
Sacrifice Plants to Get New Plants In
Sometimes, a plant has run its course by the time Meg is ready to grow something else in its place. For instance, when she harvests mature onions in August, it’s also the right time to direct-sow radishes and garlic or to transplant spinach and arugula that she has started indoors. Other times, she needs to make room.
In the heat of July, some crops like snap peas may still be producing but are clearly on their last legs. Meg will pull out a crop to reclaim the space that it was occupying in the garden. July is “last call” for Meg to plant certain fall crops, like beans, so she has to make some trade-offs.
Grow Lots of Carrots in Succession
Carrots, and beets too, grow all season as a “set it and forget it” crop,” Meg says. She direct sows her first carrot seeds in early April and follows with succession sowings every two to three weeks through mid-July. Those earliest-sown seeds take longer to germinate because the soil is still so cool then, while the later sowings are quick to sprout.
The carrots that are harvested after a few touches of frost will be the sweetest. The cold raises the Brix — the sugar content — of carrot roots, and those carrots can be stored for winter eating.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Meg Cowden. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What are your tips for planting a fall succession garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
Seed to Fork blog
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.