For the gardener, fall can be an exciting time but it’s also when we tend to get a little lazy. The garden isn’t as well weeded as it was in May, the tomatoes are looking worse for wear, the squash is looking a little scraggly. It’s just how it tends to go. But luckily, with a fall growing season, there is a chance for redemption! We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, it’s best to think about the growing season as a cycle. Even though the weather may be fooling you (especially where we are in zone 7) late summer is not the time to plant more beans or squash. It is time to pivot.
Benefits of Fall Gardening
Throughout the summer, the soil collects and holds heat. This means that in the fall, crops tend to mature more quickly than they would in the spring. Even as the weather cools down (great for the gardener), the soil continues to keep the plants warm. This means more and quicker veggie harvests in the fall. Not only that, but fall gardening can provide so many gifts for future you! With a little planning and preparation you can be harvesting from your garden well into winter.
Best Autumn Vegetables
When we talk about what to plant in the fall, we’re focusing on cool weather crops. This refers to crops that have some level of frost tolerance, which, lucky for you, includes lots of delicious vegetables!
It’s finally time again! I mean we’re not the only ones who have been waiting since May for the crisp, cool crunch of fresh lettuce, are we? Of course not. Greens love the cool weather and in some growing zones will keep producing through the whole winter. Lettuce, kale, mustard, arugula, spinach, mache, and creasy greens are all fabulous autumn crops that freshen up any meal.
Greens germinate quickly in autumn because the soil temperature is so warm. It’s a good idea to plant successions of lettuce, spinach, and arugula so you never run out. Greens can be started from seed with your larger fall starts for an early harvest or direct seeded as the weather cools down. Our recommendation? Do both! Greens all season! To learn more about growing greens, check out our blog about different kinds of salad greens and how to grow them, or learn about the difference between kale and collards (both fabulous cool weather crops).
There are three kinds of peas that we grow, all of which are cool weather crops. Snap peas, snow peas, and shelling peas are all worth growing not only for their pods but also for their deliciously sweet and snappy greens. This great crop is easy to grow. They need to be direct seeded into the soil and kept well watered until they germinate. Then, with just a little bit of trellising - you’ll have more peas than you could have asked for! Learn more about the different types of peas and how to grow them.
Brassicas make up a large portion of what we refer to as “cool weather crops.” Brassica refers to the plant family which encompasses broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, and cabbage. These plants are moderately to extremely frost tolerant and the greens actually become sweeter with light frosts. These plants also take longer to mature than other cool weather crops. Typically, these are the seeds you plant in July for transplanting in late summer or fall. Check out our other blog posts for details on how to grow cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.
Sweet underground surprises that can’t be beet! Autumn root crops are a glorious addition to any garden whether they’re beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, radishes, or rutabagas. Cultivating cool season root crops for fall harvest starts in late summer to early fall. The seeds will germinate at 45 to 85 degrees fahrenheit, but the plants need to mature as temperatures cool down. High temperatures (70 degrees and up) during maturation can make roots inedible and cause plants to bolt and die. Cold temperatures also aid in the process of converting starches into sugar, sweetening the flavor. Fall gardening is all about timing. Check out our other blog posts for details on how to grow carrots, beets, and radishes!
Allium is the name of the family that encompasses garlic, leeks, and onions. These cold-hardy vegetables are great to start in the fall and overwinter. Leeks and onions need to be started from seed in early- to mid-summer in order to be strong enough to overwinter by the time frost comes. Garlic, on the other hand, is typically planted in mid-autumn. Onions can sometimes be a little tricky for the beginner gardener. Start by learning about short day versus long day onions. Leeks can be harvested all winter long and into the spring to flavor those cold weather soups and stews. Learn how to grow leeks. And the crown jewel of the allium family - at least in our opinion - garlic! Learn how to grow garlic.
Cover crops are an important part of any garden ecosystem. And after a long season of producing big, beautiful fruits, your soil might be a little tired and need a pick-me-up. (And maybe the gardener just needs a break!) This is where cover crops come in. Learn more about cover crops and how to use them on our blog!
When Should I Plant My Fall Garden?
What do we plant? COOL WEATHER CROPS. When do we plant them? NOW.
Well, “now” is relative, but usually sooner than you think. Largely it depends on your growing zone and your first frost date. This is the first day that the temperature drops below 32 ℉. Cool weather plants can typically survive light frosts and some of them even harder ones, but you want these plants to be established before the frost comes. For many varieties, this will involve transplanting your started seeds into your garden 8-12 weeks before your frost date.
Another way to calculate your planting time is to consider the “Days to Harvest'' number (found on all of our seed packets). For example, of the brassicas, brussels sprouts have the longest time to maturity at 90-110 days or roughly 12 weeks. Of course you also have to factor in the time it takes for the seeds to germinate, which for brussels sprouts is between 5-15 days. So, late July-early August is a great time to start brussels sprout seeds for harvest in late October-early November. Other brassicas, such as kale, have shorter maturation times (50-60 days) and can be started from seed in September and still produce a great fall harvest.
Starting Seeds for the Fall
When starting fall crops from seed for transplants it is best to get started in mid to late July. Yes, we hear you, it seems so early - but - it will pay off we promise. Not to mention, germinating seeds in the middle of the summer is a breeze. It’s helpful to have the heat and the long hours of daylight to lend a hand. Though, keep in mind that it’s important to keep an eye on the temperature. Soils that are too warm during early development can negatively affect flavor or even trigger plants to bolt (ie. flower) and die. Soils that are 50 to 85 degrees fahrenheit are ideal.
Keeping starts inside during the hottest parts of the day can help protect them, but the benefits of starting seeds during the summer can still be taken advantage of during the morning and late afternoon. Once the starts are a bit more mature and stronger (3-4 true leaves), they can be moved outside and/or transplanted.
Start your large brassicas (kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) in trays with your favorite seed starting mix. Need more details? Check out our blog post all about starting seeds. If you don’t have the conditions or space to start seeds indoors, you can also direct sow (or start in trays) in an area of your garden that gets shade during the heat of the day. Plus, some quick-growing crops like radishes, arugula, and baby lettuce can be direct-seeded in the garden after temperatures have cooled down and still have plenty of time to mature before a freeze.
Challenges of Fall Gardening
Fall gardening can involve a lot of pests. As we come down from the long, hot summer, the bugs have had a feast chewing leaves and there’s no sign of stopping. This makes small vegetable transplants susceptible to death and disease or simply getting totally devoured.
While in spring, you may have put your transplants out and they matured before the pests could attack, it is not the same in the fall. Row cover is a great way to protect young transplants by creating a barrier between them and the hungry, hungry caterpillars. For severe infestations consider using organic pesticides like neem oil or BT, depending on the pest. Learn more about common pests on our blog!
This is probably the biggest issue that backyard gardeners run into. They’ve spent all summer filling in every nook and cranny with tomatoes, beans, and squash and there’s no room for fall crops while these guys are still producing! If this is you, tuck transplants between these summer crops even if they’re still producing. They’ll be finished soon enough and can be cut down to the ground, making way for your cool weather transplants to fill in the space.
Prepare Your Fall Garden Beds
Summer crops can take a lot out of your soils. A lot of them are notoriously heavy feeders (meaning they require a lot of nutrients). In order to have a successful fall garden, it is important to amend your soils before or during planting. If you’re starting with fresh, empty beds, be sure to remove all debris from your summer crops to avoid spreading disease and add a heavy layer of compost to your beds. Lightly rake in the compost.
If you’re still trying to wait for those last few tomatoes or cucumbers to ripen up you can interplant with your fall crops! Consider companion planting with your summer crops. If you do decide to interplant, just add some worm castings into each hole your plant starts go in. This will help give them a nutrient boost in depleted soils. Compost can be added later once your summer crops have died back and been removed.
To further protect your soils from depletion (and your crops from disease), remember to rotate crops in your garden! Try not to plant your brassicas in the same bed they were planted in last spring. Switch it up and put some peas (a nitrogen fixing legume) in your old brussels sprout bed to spruce up the nutrient availability for next year!
Frost protection will eventually become a component of your fall gardening routine. Even as soils stay warm into the cold weather, the frost air can damage and eventually kill many of your crops. Certain measures such as row cover, cold frames, or hoop houses can be put to use to extend the season and the harvest beyond just the early lighter frosts.
So what do you think? Want to give it a try? More veggies for more of the year is never time or space wasted. Check out our collection of seeds for fall!
Written by Hannah Gibbons, Sow True Seed's Community Coordinator