WINTER IS COMING!
But before it does, there is still autumn, and many people can manage to squeak another batch of fall vegetables out at this time of year.
But when should you have your plants in the ground, and how much time do they need before they produce?
There are more questions about fall gardening that I’m sure you’re wondering:
- What fall crops do well in the colder months of the year, and how can you incorporate these into your growing habits?
- Do you want to plant from seed, or plant young seedling plants?
- How can you prepare your fall garden to ensure that these plants survive pests and diseases to produce you another harvest of food?
If you’re wondering any of the above, then wonder no more, as I’ve got you covered. We’re going to focus on all of that and even more.
So settle in with a nice cool drink during the fading late summer heat, and let’s talk about everything you need to know to get a fall harvest before the chill sets in.
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The Timing Problem: How Do You Know When To Plant?
When Is Your Frost Date?
They say timing is everything — but it really is when you’re considering fall planting. Almost everywhere has a list of estimated dates for the first and last frosts, and while they may not be 100% accurate every year, it’s good enough to plan your upcoming garden around.
Not all frost dates are the same, of course. You will need to research your estimated frost dates before you can begin. Remember, these are always estimated, based on prior cool weather patterns, so if you have freak light frosts outside of the normal patterns, you may have to rush out and protect young plants in the cold. While there’s a wide variety of maps that give a good generalized overview, I am personally fond of this frost date calculator for getting a good estimate of when to expect the cold to come.
What Is Your Crop’s Time to Maturity?
Once you know your frost date, it’s time to look at what you’re growing. What’s your crop’s time to maturity? If, for instance, your first frost generally shows up in late November, and you’ve got plants that take 60 days to come to maturity, you’re going to want to plant at the end of August or the beginning of September.
Count backward from the estimated frost date, and add at least an extra week to account for any variables. That’s when that plant needs to be in the ground.
Of course, if you’re planting seeds, you need to add a little extra time. Germination is slow, after all — it can take up to two weeks for your fall vegetables to sprout and form a pair of true leaves, and for some, it can take even longer. And most don’t like to be direct sown in summer heat.
Add the estimated germination time to your maturity time, add a week or two just in case there’s an early frost, count backward through a calendar from your estimated frost date, and that’s when you should be sowing that seed!
What To Plant In Fall
So you’ve decided you are going to try to get one extra crop this year… but you may be asking what to plant in fall. Allow me to give you a list of popular vegetables to plant in the fall season!
Edible-leaved plants: These are the ones that generally would be bitter or would bolt in the late summer. Examples are lettuce, collards, mustard greens, arugula, spinach, Swiss chard, or kale. Some varieties are especially cold-hardy, so you might want to consider one that does well in the cooler months.
Head vegetables: This is a great time of year to plant vegetables that you’ll cut the heads from, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Napa cabbage, bok choy, or endives. Brussels sprouts are also an excellent choice for the fall vegetable garden. In some regions you’ll get a good fall harvest. In others these can grow through winter for early winter and even early spring harvests.
Allium family: Now’s your chance to plant bunching onions and green onions, leeks, and garlic. You may also be able to plant onions in areas that are unlikely to get hard freezes or snow, as with a nice mulch layer they can continue to grow all winter long.
Root vegetables: All sorts of root vegetables grow well in the fall, including carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, radishes, kohlrabi, and rutabagas.
Other vegetables: Peas love the cooler weather of the autumn, so are perfect for fall planting. Some varieties of bush beans also do extremely well at this time of year, producing a nice late fall harvest just in time for your Thanksgiving dinner. In climates where frost is almost nonexistent, you may be able to sneak in a crop of frost-tolerant cucumbers as well.
Sow or Transplant?
Both sowing and transplanting seeds are viable options… but most people realize that the summer has slipped by once it’s too late. If this has happened to you (and it does happen to all of us at some point), you’ll need to buy seedling plants instead.
You can plan months ahead and sow your own seeds, especially if you want fall crops you can’t easily find elsewhere. If you like unusual carrot types, or can’t find seedlings locally, this may be an option. You will need to start them much earlier than you might think to give the time long enough to get established.
Another thing to take into consideration is how hot it is when you start the seeds. If you still have another month of 90-degree or higher temperatures, your seedlings could sprout and immediately wilt in the sun. That can be disastrous!
I recommend starting your seeds in seedling flats filled with a good seed starting mix rather than direct-sowing them. You can keep them in the shade during the hottest parts of the day, or even keep them indoors in a sunny window, offering you a better chance of getting a good harvest.
As you can see, this can be a complex situation, and so starting from seed in the fall is not for everyone.
For the casual gardener, your best bet is going to be to purchase existing seedlings when you’re ready to plant. It’s much simpler, and the seedlings already are off to a good start. Often, the seedlings have already been culled and are ready to plant, which saves you a lot of heartaches.
If you’ve fallen behind in your fall garden planting schedule, it’s time to pick up seedlings. And if you’ve started from seed, and you’ve formed at least a couple of sets of leaves, it’s time to transplant! You can do this while your mid to late summer vegetables are still lingering in the garden, or you can clear away the older plants for your new crop.
You shouldn’t need to till again unless your soil has gotten badly compacted, but you do want to ensure that the soil is aerated and loose for the top four to five inches. If needed, you can add fertilizer or compost as well, just to give your plants an extra kick of nutrition to get them established quickly.
Once your bed is prepared, take your fall plants out to the desired planting location. Dig holes that are just big enough for your seedling and its soil mix. Remove the seedling and its soil from the tray or container, and place it directly in the ground, trying not to add too much soil on top of the seed starting soil. You don’t want to risk stem rot, especially on your root crops, and burying the plant too deep might encourage that.
Mulch over your crops. This keeps the moisture in the soil and provides an extra barrier against cool weather. Try not to mound the mulch up around your plant stems to allow for airflow to the plant itself.
Harvesting Your Crop
Fall-grown produce tends to be crisp, sweet, and fresh, as the cool temperatures help the plants keep their moisture. As fall plants develop, especially root crops like beets, you have a couple of choices. You can leave them in the ground until they’re huge, or you can harvest them when they’re young and tender. If you want to leave them to mature longer, you’ll need to protect them so they can survive light frosts.
Plants like cabbage and cauliflower can be neatly cut at the stem, leaving the remnant in the ground to slowly rot away and add extra fertility for next year’s plants. Leaf lettuce, spinach, and similar vegetables may be able to go for quite a while longer if you’re only harvesting the leaves and not whole heads. You can extend these plants out for quite a while, but remember, some plants will be destroyed by that first frost. Others, like kale, and brussels sprouts can be hardy even in light frosts.
Some areas like Florida, California, and parts of the south may be able to produce crops year-round, giving you a constant source of fresh produce. In locations like these, you might even be able to start some plants during the winter. However, be mindful of the potential for a sudden cold snap, and be ready to protect your plants if one hits.
Fall Pests & Diseases To Watch Out For
Surprisingly, a lot of pests can continue to survive and thrive well into the fall. Some of them can easily devour your fall garden plants that get planted next to lingering summer crops long before they can reach maturity, so beware!
Cabbage loopers and cabbage worms are just as likely in the autumn as they are in the mid to late summer. They’ve developed throughout the summer months, and now is when they’re feasting in preparation for hiding away through the cold months.
Fall armyworms can also materialize at this time of year, and they’re just as destructive as the other caterpillars. You can easily protect against these with a floating row cover over your plants, which will keep them away. Just be sure to securely anchor down the sides and ends of the cover lest it gets caught in a fall breeze and blow off.
This is the time of year when fall webworms strike. These caterpillars form at the tips of branches of trees or on existing plants, spinning webs inside which they happily grow their colonies. If you discover any, remove any weblike growth on branches or plants entirely, disposing of it carefully. Don’t compost this waste, just completely throw it out so the worms have no chance of overwintering in your fall garden. These, too, can be repelled before they even start with floating covers.
Also in the fall caterpillar family are cutworms. These moth caterpillars wrap themselves around stems of plants and devour them, causing the plant to die. You can prevent them with floating covers, but you may also wish to use toothpicks placed right next to the stems of young seedling plants to help keep them away. Putting two to three toothpicks right against a stem can keep any strays who get under your cover from destroying your plants.
Aphids are still a major problem in the fall garden and can be repelled with sprays like neem oil or dusts like diatomaceous earth. However, if your area gets fall rains, you may need to be on heightened alert when dealing with them. You can use a piece of paper towel to wipe off extra aphids and dispose of them, and then spray the plant with neem oil, but it won’t survive through bursts of rain. Heavy sprays of water can knock them off your plants, too.
Yellow jackets can become incredibly active from late summer through the first half of the fall. However, these are surprisingly beneficial to you during that time of year, because they like to devour a lot of caterpillars and they’re pollinators for your plants. If you can leave them alone, they will leave you alone and they will help to protect your plants.
While there are few diseases that impact your fall garden, there are a few, generally things like powdery mildew or stem rots that are lingering from the summer. But for diseases, fall is the time to combat them. Step up your garden hygiene in the fall, removing any damaged foliage.
Trim back plants, remove weeds and fallen leaves, and use neem seed meal or neem oil to help wipe out soilborne fungal infestations that might otherwise overwinter. Do this as early in the season as you can, and continue your routine throughout the season for the best chance of eliminating these before they show up the following year.
If you have found diseased foliage, don’t compost it – throw it away. Some of these diseases will linger on in your compost, rendering you susceptible to future spread. Also, this is the time of year to trim back or remove plants that have passed their normal lifespan so as to avoid the appearance of other diseases.
Additional Fall Gardening Tips
If you aren’t planting vegetables in a given bed this season, you might want to consider planting a cover crop. Cover crops can be an excellent source of soil-fixing nutrients. In addition, the plant matter that you till under in the spring will compost down and add more valuable nutrients to your soil.
If you have fruit trees, be sure to gather any fallen fruit from beneath them during the fall. This helps to prevent disease in the soil, and it cuts down on wasps, fruit flies, or other related insects. You can compost your fallen fruit in a pile or composter under more controlled conditions where diseases and seeds get killed off, but it’s not as good to leave the fruit where it fell.
As August and September, sometimes into October are the months when pumpkins and other winter squash are starting to ripen, you can protect these plants by setting the fruit on a piece of terracotta tile or an old plate. This helps keep the fruit from rotting on the bottom. If you have any pests trying to eat their way into the pumpkins, you can use an old nylon stocking around the outside of the fruit to help protect it as well.
Trim the seedheads from plants that are self-sowing, like lemon balm or the myriad of weeds that may appear in your yard. This helps keep them out of your garden in the spring.
This is the time of year to harvest lots of herbs. You can dehydrate them or tie them in bundles and let them hang-dry in a cool, dry location with lots of airflow around them, and have a supply of herbs to use throughout the winter months.
Blackberries, raspberries, and boysenberries should be caned in the autumn months. Wearing gloves to protect against those vicious thorns, trim back all canes which produced fruit this season. Leave the other canes alone. This helps prevent against diseases that strike the dead canes after the harvest.
It’s time to mulch the garden. While mulching is good all year, it’s especially beneficial in the fall and winter. Mulching helps keep moisture in the soil, plus it adds an extra protective layer for the roots of the plants from snow. It also breaks down from the constant dampness of the winter months, adding more organic material to the soil.
Leaves rain down in the fall, and now is the perfect time to gather those and start a batch of leaf compost. It’s great organic material for your garden!
Build cold frames for the upcoming chill. To do this, you can use PVC, wood, or wire to make a framework, then staple or secure clear plastic sheeting to it. Leave an opening on the ends which can be closed if the cool weather sets in, but which allows airflow in on warmer days. This acts like a little greenhouse, keeping it slightly warmer inside and protecting your plants from cold wind.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What vegetables are good for a fall garden?
A: We’ve got a great list above. Most of the best fall veggies are root vegetables and brassicas. My favorites are brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, and cabbages.
Q: When should I start my fall garden?
A: You’ll want to start seeds about 4 to 6 weeks before the first frost, and have your starts planted out and established well-before so they can make it through the first frost and the subsequent ones that occur during their life cycle.
Q: What is the best vegetable to plant in October?
A: While it largely depends on your region and when your first fall frost is, you can plant most leafy greens and root veggies around that time. Some regions will need to plant these in September, and prepare to shield plants from impending snow storms.
Q: What vegetables do you plant in September?
A: See the answer to the question above. Kale, brussels sprouts, radishes, mustard greens, and carrots all apply!
Q: When should I plant fall vegetables?
A: Plant them out in mid-summer, late summer, or early fall depending on where you live and when your first frost dates occur.
Q: How late can you plant fall crops?
A: Planting an early fall crop is possible. Check your first frost dates and maturation timeline carefully when considering when to plant these out.
Q: What are winter vegetables?
A: We’re talking mostly brassicas here (mustard greens, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, etc). However, some root veggies, like carrots and radishes can survive milder winters, as long as they’ve had ample time to mature before the cold hits.
Q: What is the best fall crop?
A: I’m biased, but I love growing kale in fall and winter. A kiss of light frost really improves the overall flavor of kales too.