Now is the time to plan for a productive fall garden. Here’s everything you need to know to enjoy fresh, nutritious cool-weather crops this autumn.
With tomatoes, peppers and melons now hitting their late summer stride, it’s easy to forget that autumn can be as abundant as spring and summer. But those who seize the opportunity for a second season will find the planning worthwhile as they munch on garden-fresh produce as Halloween approaches.
The steps to a bountiful fall garden are simple: Choose crops suited to fall growing conditions. Ensure your site has organically enriched soil and adequate water. And start now.
Replace spring-planted crops with new plantings that mature in fall. Seeds and transplants will take off quickly in warm summer soil. When deciding what to plant for fall, gardeners throughout most of the country should focus on greens and root vegetables, says John Navazio, a plant-breeding and seed specialist at Washington State University Extension and senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Washington.
In nearly any part of the country, you can grow these cool-weather crops into autumn: leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach, arugula, chard and mâche; root veggies such as beets, carrots, turnips, radishes and rutabagas; brassicas including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and Chinese cabbage; and peas. In many regions, some of these fall crops will survive the winter to produce a second harvest in spring.
If you garden where winters are mild, you can grow all of those crops plus heat-lovers. “Here, we set out tomato transplants in late August,” says David Pitre, owner of Tecolote Farm, an organic farm near Austin, Texas. Pitre plants okra, eggplant, peppers, winter squash, cucumbers and potatoes in August and September for winter harvest. In warm climates, wait to plant cool-weather crops until after temperatures cool—in late September or after.
Fall is also prime garden season in the Pacific Northwest, where abundant rain and cool (but not frigid) temperatures are ideal for growing brassicas, root crops and leafy greens planted in mid- to late summer. The hardiest of these crops often hang on well into winter if given protection such as row covers.
To determine starting dates for your fall garden plants, check the “days to maturity” in the seed catalog or on the seed packet. Add an extra week or two to factor in fall’s shorter day lengths, which delay plant maturity. Then to determine your ideal planting date, count backward, subtracting the days to maturity from your average first fall frost date (find yours at the National Climatic Data Center).
Start broccoli and cabbage seeds indoors (summer soil may be too hot for good germination), then transplant them to the garden about four weeks later, when temperatures are cooler and seedlings are large enough to compete against weeds. Direct-seed greens, carrots, beets and other root crops into prepared beds.