Here we are in mid-September already. Where did the summer go? I never mourn the end of the summer garden season, but I am getting a bit later start than usual on my favorite garden – the fall garden. So as I now plant in haste, I wanted to share what you should know for fall vegetable garden success, including best plants and tips for cool-season growing.
If you are one of those gardeners – and there are lots of them – who think that the only time to grow a food garden is in summer, I have great news. Fall gardening is really where it’s at.
Many vegetables perform best when things cool down, and frankly, that’s when I perform best too. The cooler temperatures make gardening tasks more enjoyable. Pest and disease pressure on crops is significantly lower. Even the weeds slow down – a little bit.
Here at my Atlanta-area zone 7b GardenFarm, the heat and humidity of summer means that plants here begin to wane and look haggard by mid-August. As much as I love growing tomatoes, I’m ready to move on and clear my raised beds as the dog days of summer wear on. I’m anxious to begin my cool-season crops, because the truth is, they are my favorites to grow and to eat.
Usually, I begin my fall garden at the end of August or right around the first of September. Like I mentioned, I’m about two weeks behind schedule this year, but that’s okay. For one thing, I need to recognize that it’s been a busier-than-usual August for me, traveling for two of the final episodes of my television series – Growing a Greener World®.
It’s so easy for gardeners to put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and create perfection in the garden. That’s just unrealistic. Sometimes, I need to pause and remind myself to let that go. This year, I’m accepting that life got in the way, and I missed my ideal fall planting schedule.
I’m also recognizing that my delay is working out to my benefit this year. It has been unseasonably hot and dry the past few weeks. If I had blazed ahead with my normal schedule, my seeds and seedlings would be having a tough go of it out there. Now that I’ve just gotten everything tucked into the beds this past week, here’s hoping those temperatures will cool and some rain will fall.
In the meantime, I wanted to share with you some recommendations to get you thinking about a fall garden – maybe for the first time, or maybe in a new way.
Fall Garden Preparation
Between seasons is the best time to pay some attention to your garden soil. At the end of summer I cut down, pull out and clear away all the plant material from my summer crops – like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. I add it all to my compost pile except anything showing signs of disease.
I don’t risk adding disease spores to my compost system. Instead, I throw that material out and get it off my property.
This year, my pepper plants are still going strong. They love heat, but now that they have hit their stride, they will keep producing all the way up through frost. So, I’ve kept the peppers in place. My sweet potato vines, planted about a month ago, are maturing nicely; and this root crop won’t be ready to harvest for another several weeks.
The rest of my sixteen raised beds get a clean slate. So before I get to work planting for fall, I take advantage of a clear surface to replenish the bed soil. This time of year, I always add some non-burning, organically-derived Milorganite® fertilizer. I’ve had amazing results by adding it twice a year – spring and fall. Synthetic fertilizers can burn plants and leach away. Non-soluble, organic and organically-derived nutrients remain in the soil until plants need them.
Next, I add a topdressing of compost. I don’t spend time working it into the soil either. I know that the billions of microbes and the earthworms – all members of the soil food web will work the material into the soil for me, without disrupting the existing structure that serves to retain proper moisture levels.
That’s it. My fall garden prep work is done. Is it sometimes difficult to take out summer crops that might be producing a few fruits or vegetables? Sure. At other times, removing all those mature plants just feels like an overwhelming chore. When I’m feeling a little of that garden discouragement, I remind myself that the summer plants have filled their purpose and the effort to make way for new growth is short-lived.
The garden is a great tool for embracing challenges and changes. And besides – once the beds are empty, I get to enjoy the fun part next – planting.
Seeds and Seedlings
One of the questions I’m asked a lot regardless of season is whether to sow seeds or plant seedlings. In fall, the answer to that question comes down to timing.
I love to start plants indoors from seed. It gives me more control over the health of my soon-to-be seedlings, and it gives me access to more varieties. After all, the choices in the seed catalog are far more diverse than what I can find locally for seedling options. Growing from seed is certainly less expensive too.
A seed packet will indicate if that type of seed should be sown directly into the garden bed. When direct sowing is the recommendation, it is typically because that plant doesn’t respond well to being transplanted – as in moved from a seed-starting tray into the garden. One good example of that is carrots. Carrots perform best when they are sown directly into the garden bed.
However, there really are exceptions to just about every rule. Beets are also recommended for direct sowing, but I’ve had great success starting those indoors and transplanting. I know plenty of other gardeners who are successfully starting their beets indoors too.
So, don’t be afraid to experiment. What do you have to lose? If the seedlings don’t establish, you can sow more seeds directly into the garden. In fall, the most important consideration is to make sure you aren’t getting any of your plants – seeds or seedlings – into the ground too late.
How do you know what too late is? First and foremost, get to know the first frost date for your area. You should be able to find that with a quick online search, but your local County Extension office will also be able to provide the date when temperatures typically drop below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) in your region.
Some cool season vegetables do like cooler temperatures, but they don’t tolerate cold temperatures very well. Do a little bit of research on the plants you want to grow to determine if they can tolerate a frost or not.
Any vegetable that isn’t frost-tolerant will need to mature before your projected first frost date. So, work backwards from there. If the plant requires 6 weeks to maturity, you need to get the seedling into the garden at least 6 weeks before your first frost. So if you want to start that plant from seed, you need to sow seeds indoors early enough to allow the seed to germinate and mature into a healthy seedling ready for the garden.
If you are planting a vegetable that can withstand a frost – and some are even better after frost arrives – then, you have additional time after the first frost date to allow the crop to mature.
Take peas, for example. The first frost date in my area is November 15th. Peas take 60-70 days to mature, depending on the variety. Pea vines won’t tolerate frost very well, so I need to be sure to get seedlings into the ground by September 15th or to direct sow pea seeds a week or two earlier to allow them time to germinate and develop into sturdy seedlings ready to latch onto a trellis.
When I start seeds indoors, I generally allow for six weeks from the time I sow the seeds into trays until they will be ready to go into the ground. How much time each seed requires does depend on plant type and variety, but I use six weeks as an across-the-board guideline.
Seeds that I sow directly into the garden will germinate and mature more quickly. Thanks to the soil – still warm from hot summer days – full sun and the benefit of the natural environment, I use four weeks as a general rule of thumb for calculating how long it will take for them to develop into seedlings which will then take another several weeks to mature into a harvestable crop.
All that said, I’m a curious gardener, so I like to push things. Like those peas that I just planted a week ago. I’m banking on those little guys germinating and developing quickly in our unusually warm weather and will roll the dice hoping they will mature before frost actually does strike here at the GardenFarm™.
Don’t be afraid to experiment to see how your plants respond to the cold weather either. A few years ago, I had about 30 heads of broccoli just waiting to be harvested. I knew that broccoli will tolerate a frost and could even tolerate temperatures which dipped quite a bit below freezing.
Well, time got away from me that week, and one night, temperatures fell further than I had expected – 17 degrees! I was sure that I would walk into the garden and see a destroyed broccoli crop. To my surprise, the heads looked great. They laughed at 17 degrees.
The next night I pushed the limit a bit too far. Overnight, the temperature fell to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. That was more than the broccoli could take. Seven degrees made all the difference, and I lost my crop. Was I disappointed? Yes, but I learned a production threshold that I have applied to my broccoli every year since.
My Favorite Fall Crops
Have I mentioned that I love the vegetables that grow in the cool of spring and fall? I do. I really, really do. Notice that I said these like the cool of fall and spring. Although I’m presenting this list to you as fall crops, refer back to this list and let it guide you for your early spring planting too.
Here’s a list of my favorites:
Leafy greens, in general, are considered cool weather crops. Arugula is one of my favorites. It is easy to grow, and it looks great in the garden too. It’s dark green leaves are shaped a little like oak leaves, and they pack a spicy heat that I love as a salad.
Arugula seeds germinate in about a week (even when soil is still cold in early spring). Like most leafy greens, this is a cut-and-come-again crop. That means, I can cut leaves from the outside of the plant, and it will continue to produce more edible leaves. I can also cut right across the top of the entire plant to harvest what I need. Arugula will grow more harvestable foliage within a week.
These plants do well in containers, so you can keep them right outside the kitchen too. Actually, all of the cool weather crops I’m listing here will do well in containers. Just be sure that the container is sized appropriately – for example, a deep container to accommodate root crops.
This is one of my favorites for both spring and fall. The entire plant is edible – foliage and root. Like many fall crops, beets are packed with nutrition. They will continue to grow in size, but I think they taste best when they are about 2 ½” across.
This year, I opted to sow seeds directly into the garden. It’s only been a week, but they have already germinated. Next spring, I will probably start seeds indoors. I’ve had some of my best crops from seedlings I grew indoors and spaced directly into the garden.
This is the gold star winner among the cool-season crops. If you’ve never had broccoli fresh out of the garden-grown from your own rich soil – I hope you make this your first year to enjoy that experience. The taste is nothing like what you buy at the supermarket.
It’s easy to grow, but there are a few caterpillar pests that will be looking to feast on the foliage. So, it’s a good idea to check the plants for crawling culprits that you can pick off before they do much damage.
Broccoli will require that maturity time in order to form the main head you want, so be sure to allow it that time. However, once you do harvest the head, the plant isn’t finished. Leave the stalk in place. Edible mini-heads will develop off the sides.
This is one of those crops that actually gets better after freezing temperatures strike. Once it’s been kissed by frost, your broccoli will become even sweeter. Be sure to plant enough to store in the freezer too, so you can enjoy it long after the plants have surrendered to the winter cold.
I love how bullet-proof this plant is. The seeds require soil that is at least 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but once they get going, this plant will thrive in cold temperatures of late fall and early winter.
It takes a long time for the sprouts to mature, but your patience will be rewarded. Freshly-harvested Brussels sprouts are so much better than store bought. These plants develop a tall, woody stalk that can resemble a small tree. Sprouts develop up the side of the stalk, and they will perform better if you pull off lower leaves to allow light to reach the length of the stalk.
I’m planting mine from seedlings during the second week of this month and expect the sprouts to be ready for my Thanksgiving Day table.
This crop loves cool but not cold temperatures. Some varieties are most frost-tolerant than others, so do your homework. However, some varieties also take longer to mature to a harvestable head size, so account for the appropriate maturity rate indicated on the seed packet or seedling tag.
Cabbage grown in your own home garden is so much sweeter than what you can buy in the store. I love turning mine into coleslaw, and this year, I’ll be using a new recipe I learned from my good friend and fellow gardener, Meg Cowden. She prepared hers while we were visiting her garden for an upcoming episode of Growing a Greener World.
Who doesn’t love carrots? This is such an easy crop to grow when you have good soil. If you struggle with carrots, odds are good that it’s due to rocky or compacted soil. The carrot root does best when it can mature straight down into loose, rich earth.
Carrots are one of the slowest crops to germinate. It can take up to 21 days. Fortunately, they love cold weather. In fact, you can store them in place. They will remain in the ground all winter long if you cover them under a thick layer of mulch or cover them with a cold frame.
Year-round gardener Niki Jabbour eats carrots from her Nova Scotia garden just about every day through winter. As the cold wears on, the carrots get sweeter and sweeter.
As carrots germinate, you will need to thin them out. Carrot seeds are so tiny, that sowing them too closely is all but inevitable. I still struggle with pulling out a viable seedling to thin out spacing and make room for the remaining carrots to mature, but thinning is a necessary and important aspect of gardening.
Like cabbage, cauliflower is sensitive to frost and sub-freezing temperatures. It requires the cool temperatures of spring and fall, but if it is hit with a frost, the head will be burned by the cold.
Cauliflower heads are also sensitive to strong sunlight, so it’s a good idea to pull the side leaves over the head for protection as it’s forming. Some varieties develop this way naturally.
Maybe you aren’t a fan of the flavor of cauliflower? Some people would even consider this crop to be flavorless. Well, I’m here to tell you that this easy-to-grow plant is packed with flavor when it’s grown in your own garden.
Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy)
There are many Chinese cabbage varieties, and I like them all. Unlike the classic heading cabbage most people associate with classic cabbage, bok choy is different. It’s fast growing, upright and very attractive. Bok choy and similar varieties don’t form a head. You can harvest the entire plant by cutting just above the stem, but I prefer to harvest from the outer leaves, allowing for a few more harvesting opportunities. The plant will continue to grow until you cut it off at the stem or frost takes its toll.
I’m growing bok choy in my garden this fall but other varieties I enjoy include pak choi and joy choy (and, yes, the spellings will drive you crazy!). All are easy to sow directly into the garden from seed, but like other cabbages, be sure to allow it the time it needs to mature before the first frost hits.
This leafy green is packed with vitamins, and it is so easy to grow. It loves the cold. This is another crop that just gets better after it is hit with a frost.
As a southerner, I grew up with collards, but I don’t know why this vegetable is unique to southern cooking. This plant grows just about everywhere in North America, and the flavor is out of this world. I cut the leaves of collard into large squares and throw them into vegetable stock with some carrots, garlic and onion. I recommend you give collards a try.
It doesn’t get much easier than garlic. There are all kinds of varieties which fall into two different categories – soft neck and hard neck. Some varieties within each category will perform better in your hardiness zone than others. That said, you can take a clove you purchased in the grocery store and bury it under about 2” of soil in October, and your work is done.
In spring, curly flower and seed heads (called scapes) will form from hard neck varieties. The scapes should be cut back, but that’s a good thing. They are tender and edible, with a delicate garlic flavor that is great in salads or stir fry. Soft neck varieties won’t form scapes.
Regardless of type, the foliage of your garlic plant will continue to grow through mid-summer. It’s once the foliage begins to die off, typically in July or early August, that the plant is ready to harvest.
Pull up the bulb and allow it to cure. It will store for weeks in a cool, dry location indoors. Soft neck varieties tend to store the longest – up to ten months after being harvested.
This is a winter-hardy superfood. Like collards, this leafy green is so easy to grow, and it really loves the cold.
You may see a few aphids take up residence, but just hose those off with a stiff spray of water. There’s not much else to growing kale. They are such a great, low-maintenance addition to the garden. I like the curly leaf variety best – whether it’s in a salad, stir fry or a smoothie. Good stuff!
This weird looking plant forms a bulb above the soil with broccoli-type leaves that extend from the top. It may look like a spaceship, but it tastes amazing. It’s one of the less commonly-grown cool season crops, but it shouldn’t be.
Kohlrabi is easy to grow and winter hardy. Like carrots, you can store kohlrabi in the ground under a thick layer of mulch once temperatures really drop. If the moth of the flea beetle is still hanging around your garden when you plant kohlrabi, cover the plants with floating row cover to prevent the moth from laying eggs on the plant. Flea beetle larvae love kohlrabi.
The bulb of this plant is delicious raw, but I especially love it sautéed in stir fry.
You almost can’t go wrong with lettuce – as long as you grow it in spring and fall. The seeds germinate in about three days, and you’ll have harvestable leaves soon after. In fact, you can – and should – just sprinkle the seeds across the soil surface. Don’t cover them with soil, just keep them moist and get the salad dressing ready.
The delicate leaves of lettuce are amazingly cold hardy. There are so many varieties, which come in a kaleidoscope of color. So, grow lettuce for the crop but don’t lose sight of how much beauty it will bring to your food garden as well.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson used to sow a thimbleful of lettuce seeds every Monday from fall through spring. He loved the ease and production of lettuce so much that he made sure he always had a succession of new plants for a tender, bountiful harvest.
Giant red mustard is my favorite of the mustard species. It packs a lot of heat in those leaves, but most of all, I love how it looks. I grow this plant more for the ornamental interest it brings to my garden than for the harvest. The leaves blend almost neon purples and reds with a brilliant green stalk. This plant really is a show-stopper.
Let some of the leaves mature to their large and more colorful display, but harvest the smaller leaves to eat. They are more tender and milder in flavor.
Mustard is not as tolerant of cold temperatures as some of the leafy cool weather crops. It’s a great plant to grow successively, so that you have a continuous supply of new, young leaves. By planting a few seeds or seedlings every week, you’ll extend the harvest up through frost.
Like garlic, onions are planted as seeds or “sets” (seeds which have already sprouted), in fall. Then, they mature through winter and into summer when they develop the bulbs we harvest. There are all kinds of varieties of onions to explore – white, yellow, red – and they offer varying degrees of sweetness.
Pay attention to the onion variety which will perform best in your region. Onion varieties are “short day”, “long day” or “day neutral”; so it’s important to select the right type for your garden.
Short day varieties require 10-12 hours of sunlight to form a bulb, so these are most common for southern gardeners. These varieties have a higher concentration of water, so they won’t store well and are best eaten shortly after harvest.
Long day varieties grow best in the northern U.S. and Canada, as they require 14-16 hours of sunlight per day. Long day onions store well after harvest and curing.
Day neutral (aka intermediate) onion varieties grow well just about anywhere in North America. They require 12-14 hours of sunlight to form a bulb and are a good bet no matter where you garden.
This is another one of my cool weather favorites. Like most of these fall crops, peas are easy to grow and delicious fresh off the vine. They are good in the kitchen, of course. It’s just that mine never seem to make it that far.
Peas are climbers, so they add vertical interest in the garden. The tendrils of the vine will clamber up all sorts of different trellis materials. I love using livestock panels for mine. How tall the vines will reach depends on the variety, so pay attention to that information on the seed packet or seedling tag.
Once temperatures reach the freezing point, the vines will begin to die back, so be sure to allow sufficient maturity time. I sowed seeds a week ago, and they have just begun to germinate. One tip when it comes to pea seeds: Soaking them in water for 12-24 hours will speed up the germination process by a couple of days.
I’ll admit that I was never very fond of radishes. Back in the day, the standard red radish with spicy white flesh was not my thing. Since then, a world of other varieties have come on the market, and my interest in the radish has been reborn. The flavors and colors offered by the diverse varieties of this humble root vegetable are worth another look for any gardener.
One of the real joys of growing radishes is their quick maturity rate. They are ready to harvest in about 30 days, and their foliage doesn’t grow very tall either. That means, radishes are a great option for tucking in between other – longer growing – fall crops. You can really maximize space when you mix radishes in the empty spaces available before other crops reach mature size.
Remember when my broccoli tanked in 10 degree temperatures? Well, my spinach laughed at that and kept standing strong. This is another bulletproof crop that I grow every fall, whether I start it from seed or plant seedlings. The seeds will germinate in about five days, but it takes longer than other leafy greens for the leaves of spinach to be ready to begin harvesting.
Once leaves are mature, the plant will produce abundantly. Harvest the sweet leaves of this plant from the perimeter, and allow new leaves to continue emerging from the center.
I’ve found spinach to be a really easy crop to grow. That may be due, in part, to the mulch I spread around the base of the plants and the consistent moisture I provide through the fall.
This is another plant that isn’t just tasty – it’s beautiful. It’s brightly colored leaves and stalks liven up the look of any garden. Some people grow it strictly as an ornamental. I like to eat mine – in salad or stir fry.
Swiss chard is another easy-to-grow and durable plant. If any of the foliage is killed off by a sudden, hard frost; I remove what has died back and leave the rest of the plant alone. In no time, I see new leaves sprouting. It’s so hardy, Swiss chard can continue growing through the winter months. The cold weather may kill off the top growth and send the plant into dormancy, but as warmer days return, new leaves spring to life from the base producing a new crop.
Those are my favorites, but that really is just the tip of the icicle. There are all sorts of other cool-season vegetables that are just waiting for you to give them a try.
Protecting Fall Seeds & Seedlings
Whatever you choose to grow in your fall garden, there are a few key things to keep in mind to increase your success rate.
Until they reach a more durable and mature size, the seeds and seedlings I set into my garden beds are susceptible to all kinds of pillaging creatures. My barn cats, my chickens, the local squirrel population – they all love to dig in my freshly prepared garden beds. Fortunately, I discovered that livestock panels offer an easy solution.
I lay a section of livestock panel over the soil surface or suspended on top of the frame of my raised beds. It gives the seeds and seedlings the room they need to grow, but it discourages those digging pests from, well, digging – and tearing up my plants in the process. The plants grow up through and mature around the grid of the livestock panel, so I often leave it in place throughout the season.
Mulch is important any time of the year. A 2-3” layer of mulch will keep the soil cooler and retain moisture longer. My favorite, of course, is shredded leaves. It’s easy to work with around tender seedlings, and over time, it breaks down to feed my soil.
That said, I don’t mulch over newly-sown seeds. I leave the surface bare until the seedlings have developed a bit. Germination only lasts for a short period, so I would rather allow a few days without mulch than risk obstructing my germinating seeds.
For seeds with a long germination period, like carrots, it can be tricky to keep bare soil moist – especially during the early days of fall when temperatures can still be hot. For those situations, I drape a layer of burlap over the area of sown seeds. You can buy burlap at hobby stores or get burlap bags from some coffee roasting shops, usually for free. That’s what I do. Either way, the burlap protects the shallowly planted seeds while holding critical moisture in the soil.
You don’t want the burlap to block the tiny sprouts, so keep track of the days and check regularly for the first signs of germination. The benefit of burlap versus mulch is that the burlap is easy to lift off just as germination takes place.
I’m also a big believer in using a drip irrigation system to provide the consistent moisture seeds and seedlings require. The kits are easy to customize, so I can place it along the young plants and control with an automatic timer. That way, I know the young plants are being watered even when I’m busy elsewhere.
If days are consistently hot, that can be too much for cool season crops – especially young ones. Temperatures in the upper 80s and 90s can create stress for the plants, but you can protect them from some of that by covering them with floating row covers or shade cloth over hoops made from inexpensive plastic PVC pipe.
Water and light will pass through the cover, but it will block some of the heat and harsh rays to allow your seedlings to rally until temperatures cool down.
Another trick when days are still hot – don’t plant during the morning or mid-day. I always plant seedlings later in the day, so that they have the cool evening to acclimate to their new environment.
If temperatures cool down too much, you can protect sensitive cool weather crops from that using the same method. Floating row cover can trap the heat within the soil and help plants survive a frosty night. Heavier fabric, like a frost blanket, is also available which will offer even better protection if a sudden and harsh cold snap is about to strike.
You can extend your season in spite of freezing temperatures if you utilize a cold frame. A cold frame is like a mini-greenhouse that you set over the plants in your garden bed or that you plant cool weather crops into. The air temperature in a cold frame will remain significantly warmer than outside, so your plants can keep producing.
The air temperature in a cold frame can actually be so warm during mid-day that you need to open it up to allow ventilation and prevent overheating plants.
When it comes to pests, there aren’t many to do battle with on cool-weather crops. Most are worms which are easy to control in the garden. So, learn to identify the adult moth form of the caterpillar pests common in your area. Then when you spot the moth-like the white moth of the common cabbage worm – you can protect your plants with row cover.
The moth is a sure sign that trouble is on the way. Covering your plants with floating row cover prevents moths from accessing the plants to lay their eggs on the leaves. It’s not the moth or eggs which will do damage, it’s the caterpillars the eggs become. By blocking the moth’s opportunity to lay the eggs, you prevent future caterpillar damage.
Any worm or caterpillar-type pests which do hatch are easy to pick off. Some years are worse than others, so if there are too many to remove manually, Bt – Bacillus thuringiensis – is an organic and effective control.
Bt is effective only against caterpillar-type insects. It won’t harm you or your pets, but you should still be careful when you apply it. It will kill beneficial caterpillars too, so be sure to dust or spray Bt directly onto the area where the pest caterpillars are lurking.
I hope that this has stirred up some ideas for your fall garden. There’s still time. Just find your first frost date and choose plants accordingly. Have you grown cool-season crops before? Share your favorite – and the reason it wins as your gold-star choice – in the Comments section below.
Be sure to listen in to this episode too. Scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. After all, I always offer an additional nugget or two of something fun and interesting in my podcast recordings.
Links & Resources
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