As summer winds down and the kids head back to school, it’s time to plan your fall vegetable garden. Start seeds or transplants in late summer to extend your harvest with fast-growing greens, beets, and other cool weather crops. Many leafy greens, like collards, actually develop a better, sweeter taste when they’re touched by a light frost.
Prepare Your Soil
It’s as important to prepare your garden for planting now as it is in spring. Remove any plants that are finished and compost them, or discard / destroy them if you see signs of disease or pests. Till your soil 6 to 8 inches deep, removing rocks and sticks. Apply amendments, if needed, to loosen your soil and improve drainage. If you fertilized heavily in the spring, you may not need to fertilize again. If you didn’t test your garden in the spring, use a soil test kit to see which amendments you may need. Most county extension services will do the test for you, but that often takes a few weeks. Save time by doing your own testing.
Plant Your Crops
You can plant semi-hardy or hardy vegetables for fall. Semi-hardy crops can survive repeated light frosts, like beets, Chinese cabbage, collards, cauliflower, Bibb lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, parsnips, Swiss chard, and spinach. Hardy vegetables can tolerate temperatures that drop down to about 20 degrees F. Cabbage, carrots, kale, leeks, turnips, broccoli, rutabagas, and leeks are in this group. Even though their tops die back, the roots of hardy vegetables will keep underground if you protect them with a thick mulch of hay or leaves. You can harvest them in early spring.
Sow the seeds for most fall crops directly in your garden, following the spacing directions on the packets. If you don’t expect much rainfall, or you don’t have a way to irrigate or water easily, you may want to set out vegetable transplants instead. Either way, don’t let your seeds or young plants get excessively dry. Your garden needs about one inch of water a week.
Gardeners in warm climates often get a first frost followed by a stretch of good weather. If frost threatens, protect any tender vegetables still in your garden with a row cover, raised bed cover, or a length of burlap supported by sticks. Cover individual plants with empty milk jugs or plastic liter bottles. Don’t forget to remove the covers when the danger of frost has passed. Semi-hardy and hardy vegetables don’t need frost protection, but go ahead and harvest your semi-hardy crops before a heavy freeze hits. Mulch the hardy crops before the first hard freeze.
Tips for northern gardeners:
- Heavy winter rains can take a toll on crops. Try growing them in raised beds to help with drainage.
- Use a cold frame, mulch, or a floating row cover to protect leafy greens through the fall.
- Try ‘Napoli’ carrots. This variety is recommended for the sweet flavor it develops in cold weather.
- If slugs eat your plants, try a physical barrier like a cold frame or floating row cover. If that doesn’t help, consider a slug control product.
- Overwinter easy-to-grow scallions in cold frames or under row covers, and they’ll be ready to pull in spring.
- Mulch your garlic bed around the end of November with 4 to 6 inches of straw. The bulbs will be ready to harvest next summer.
- Recommended onions for northern gardens include ‘White’ or ‘Red Sweet Spanish’ and ‘Redwing.’
Tips For Southern Gardeners:
- If it’s still hot when you’re planting for fall, try sowing your seeds in a partially shaded area. You may have better luck planting from seed now than in the springtime, when the weather is heating up rather than cooling down. Regular autumn rains should also help.
- Fall is the time for southerners to plant garlic cloves. Garlic dislikes hot weather and competing with weeds, so if the winter temperatures drop low enough to kill off some weeds, you’ll be ahead of the game.
- Depending on the variety, plant onions from fall into the winter. Short-day onions like ‘White Bermuda’ or ‘Vidalia’ are best for southern gardens. (Short day onions start to form bulbs when the days are 12 to 14 hours long. Long day types form bulbs when the days are 14 to 16 hours long, and are better for northern gardens.)
Tips For Western Gardeners:
- Plant sweet onions like ‘Vidalia’ and ‘Texas Grano’ in the fall, and they’ll be ready to pull in late spring or early summer.
- If you’re growing scallions from seed, sow them directly in your garden by late August.
- West Coast gardeners, with their mild winters, can grow greens year-round.
Images of carrots in basket and onions in basket: Shutterstock/La Grande Farmers Market
Images of carrots side-by-side: Flickr/krossbow