How to Grow Fall Vegetables
A Basic Guide For Growing Fall Vegetables
You worked hard in the spring, prepping the ground, sowing seeds and setting out young plants for your vegetable garden. Now, as the harvest begins, you're enjoying the fruits of your labor.
So why plant a fall garden and start the process all over again?
A fall garden can provide you and your family with nutritious rewards: fresh, healthy produce—and plenty of it.
Depending upon the crops you choose to grow, they can be ready to harvest in as little as 40 days. And due to their response to cooler weather, some vegetables actually taste better when grown as a fall crop.
Before you get started, however, take a few moments to review a few general concepts--basic ideas for planning and growing fall vegetables that I've learned as a gardener over the last 30 years.
PLANNING A FALL GARDEN
What to Plant
Cool season crops are typically members of the Brassica and Cucurbit families. Brassicas include bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprout, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, rutabaga and turnip. Cabbages in particular tend to have a sweeter flavor when grown in the cool season.
Members of the Cucurbit family, such as cucumbers, pumpkin and winter squashes, are also cool-season crops.
Other vegetables that grow well in a second-season garden include beets, carrots, garlic, lettuce, peas, spinach and Swiss chard.
The easiest vegetables to grow in a fall garden? That depends upon where you live. Here in Hardiness Zone 7, beans, cucumbers, greens, tomatoes and squash are probably the most productive and fuss-free fall crops.
PLANNING A FALL GARDEN
When to Plant
Once you decide what you want to grow, you may have to gather a few facts and do a bit of math so that you know when to sow seeds and/or set out plants—that is, unless you use a "cheat" sheet of vegetable planting times.
Before you plant ...
Before starting a fall garden, gather the data you need to plant crops at the appropriate times:
- The average fall frost date in your area
- The number of days needed for germination
- The number of days the vegetables you grow need to reach maturity.
- If you live in the US, consult your state's cooperative extension website for planting dates in your area.
If you live in the U.S., planting dates for fall vegetables should be available online through your county cooperative extension agency.
Often extension offices do the work for gardeners, posting lists of vegetables and their planting times on their websites. If you haven't looked at what your extension office has to offer, be sure to check out the site before planting. The site probably includes lots of useful information about gardening where you live in addition to a list of local planting times for vegetables.
If you decide to calculate planting dates on your own, be sure to gather these three bits of information: 1) the first fall frost date in your area, 2) the germination rates of the plants you intend to grow and 3) the number of days it will take them to reach maturity.
Whether you're starting seeds indoors or directly sowing them outside, you'll need to check the seed packet for germination rates.
Along with the first fall frost date and the number of days needed for the crop to reach maturity, the number of days the seeds need in order to germinate will help you determine when to start planting.
Days to Maturity
The vegetables in your fall garden should reach maturity before the first killing frost. Knowing how long that generally takes will help you plant in good time.
Before you plant, you also need to know when frost is predicted in your area for fall.
If you live in a major city, the Old Farmer's Almanac online's "Frost Chart for the U.S." is a good place to look. (There's a link to a frost chart for Canada on that page, too.)
If your area isn't listed on the Farmer's Almanac chart, check the website of your state's cooperative extension office for the projected frost dates where you live. Links to state extension offices are found at the USDA website.
Once you have the information that you need, get out your calendar and work your way back from your area's first frost date, factoring in both days to germination and days to harvest.
Grower's Tip: Row covers & cloches will protect your fall vegetables from frost and extend the growing season.
Here in Southern Maryland, our first frost date will probably occur at the end of October. That means that I can directly sow (and resow) lettuce, which takes about 10 days to germinate and about 60 days to reach full maturity, through the first of September.
I can sow and resow radishes through the middle of September. As for peas, which I've also selected for my fall garden—I'll need to get them into the ground by August 5.
PLANNING A FALL GARDEN
Where to Plant
When making your decision about where to plant your fall vegetable garden, be sure to consider the light requirements of the vegetables you plan to grow.
While squash, pumpkin, cucumber, beans, garlic, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower need a full-sun location with at least 6 to 8 of direct sunlight per day, beets, carrots, chard, kale and mustard greens require only 6.
Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, need between 4 to 5 hours of direct light per day.
Also think about the space the vegetables will require as they grow, as well as your own personal expectations.
There are lots of choices beyond traditional rows when it comes to planting a fall garden. Here are a few of the possibilities.
Planting for Aesthetics
If you lack the room and/or the energy to maintain a vegetable garden separate from the rest of your landscape--or you simply want to try something new, consider incorporating vegetables into flowerbeds and landscaping islands.
Many fall vegetables are extremely pretty plants that look very nice when grown alongside flowers and other ornamentals. In fact, colorfully colored varieties of lettuce, Swiss chard, cabbage and other fall vegetables can be thought of as edible ornamentals.
Some particularly pretty vegetables to try include Turk's Turban squash, Red Drumhead cabbage, ruby chard, Bull's Blood beets and Painted Lady runner beans. (And why not plant a few herbs, too, while you're about it?)
If you really like the idea of an edible landscape, you could even experiment with growing an ornamental vegetable garden, also known as a potager.
Grower's Tip: Arrange your fall vegetable garden so that tall plants are to the north or west of vegetables that require full sun; otherwise, the tall plants may "shade out" the shorter ones, stunting their growth or causing them to die.
Planting for Efficiency
The goal of intensive fall vegetable gardening is to raise the most produce possible in the space allotted.
Raised bed gardening, vertical gardening, succession planting and interplanting are all intensive techniques that can applied in your fall vegetable garden.
HOW TO GROW FALL VEGETABLES
Soil Prep Checklist
Have you ...
- Cleaned up the garden area, removing dead plants & debris?
- Pulled weeds?
- Checked the soil's pH?
- Turned the soil & worked in a few inches of compost?
- Added lime as needed?
Preparing the Soil
Once you've chosen a location for your second season garden, it's time to prep the ground for planting.
If you're planting a site previously used for spring vegetables, first remove the old plants, composting the ones that are disease free. Remove weeds and other debris as well.
Once your garden is weed free, break up the soil, working in about two inches of compost as you do so. Cultivate and fertilize to a depth of about 12 inches, especially if you plan to grow root crops like carrots and beets.
It's also a good idea to check the soil's pH. In general, fertile soil is only slightly acidic or neutral. You can do this with a home pH tester/testing kit or by sending a soil sample to a local lab for testing.
If your garden soil's pH falls below 6, add lime as you're cultivating, particularly if you're growing broccoli or other Brassicas, which tend to develop clubroot root in acidic soil. (If rain is predicted, rather than working the lime into the soil, you can simply sprinkle lime over the area and let the rainwater wash it in.)
If you add manure to your garden soil, don't add lime at the same time. When combined, lime and manure create ammonia and the resulting nitrogen is released into the soil.
After liming, it will take about a month for the soil's pH to increase.
HOW TO GROW FALL VEGETABLES
Grower's Tip: To keep cucumber beetles at bay, sow a trap crop of amaranth nearby. Because adult beetles like amaranth more than curcubits, they'll swarm the plants. Once they do, they're effectively "trapped." Cut down the amaranth, beetles & all, & destroy it.
Planting Fall Crops
For a beginning gardener, planting seedlings from a local greenhouse is probably the easiest route when establishing a fall garden. Those who live in a warm climate may have to provide seedlings with a bit of shade and extra moisture until they are established. Those who start their own seedlings indoors should harden them off before transplanting them, acclimating them to the outdoors gradually.
Some fall vegetables don't transplant well, performing best if sown directly into the planting area. Beans, carrots, lettuce, radishes, turnips and peas are among them.
CUT & COME AGAIN
Vegetables like leaf lettuce are sometimes called cut-and-come-again (CCA) vegetables. Leaf lettuce may be harvested after about 4 weeks, when seedlings are no more than 5 inches. Simply cut the leaves off about 1 inch above the ground. (Don't thin them!) You'll be able to harvest again in another 3 weeks or more.
In general, it's easiest to directly sow CCA vegetables outside—although if you live in a high-temperature area, you'll have to provide shade during the germination & seedling stage in order to keep the soil from drying out.
Caring for Fall Crops
Just like spring gardens, fall vegetable gardens must be watered, weeded and monitored for pests.
Although it's important to water your fall garden, if your area is under drought conditions or you simply want to conserve water, you can limit watering fruiting vegetables like beans, peas and tomatoes to these crucial time periods:
- during germination
- immediately after transplanting
- during flowering
- when fruit begins to swell
After watering, mulch around fruiting vegetables with compost to conserve moisture. (If you live in a cooler climate, you could also use plastic sheets as mulch. Here in Zone 7, I find that plastic makes my fall garden too warm, but ... that may not be true for all warm-climate gardens.)
Leaf crops like lettuce, Swiss chard and kale should be watered throughout the growing period.
Cultivating the Soil
To remove weeds, hoe lightly around vegetable plants when the soil is dry, cutting into the surface no more than a 1/2 inch so as not to damage surface roots. If you have the time and patience, hand weed rather than hoe. Weeding by hand is easiest when the soil is moist.
Keeping your garden weed free will reduce pests. And a weed-free garden means that vegetable plants won't have to compete with weeds for the moisture and nutrients they need in order to grow.
About the Author
The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.
She first began gardening as a child alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.
Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.
© 2012 Jill Spencer