Fall Gardens Are the Best!

Fall is the perfect time to garden. Cooler weather makes being in the garden enjoyable and plant lovin’ bugs are ending their life cycles. Extending your garden season will prolong your harvest and  give you a bounty of vegetables.

When to Start A Fall Garden

Early August is the perfect time to start a fall garden! “What?!” You may argue. “Are you crazy – it’s the end of the season!” Yes, it is the end of the summer season but it is just the beginning for your fall crops.

As an added perk – fall crops are delicious growing in warm days and cool nights. You do not have to worry about lettuce bolting and getting bitter and a light frost actually makes broccoli and cabbage sweeter.

In spring we think of the average last spring frost date and plan accordingly. In fall it is just the opposite. Look up the average first fall frost for your location. Then count backward to decide on planting dates. Timing can be a little tricky (like all gardening) and takes some practice. Seeds generally sprout and grow faster in late summer. But as days shorten and weather cools their growth will slow down.

In addition, many fall crops can be covered in late fall and will continue to produce in winter months. Last year I wintered over kale and spinach in the garden. I transplanted in seedlings in late September, mulched with old straw, covered with hoops and garden fabric (more on this soon) and ta-dah I had a lovely harvest through February! I have been increasing the size of my fall/winter garden every year because it’s so wonderful to go out in the snow and cut fresh greens!!

 What Are the Best Crops To Grow For a Fall Garden?

There are an abundance of delicious plants that grow well in cool temperatures:

 Starting fall seedlings in the shed where it is cooler

Starting fall seedlings in the shed where it is cooler

  • ·         Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower)                                                                        
  • ·         Greens (kale, lettuces, mesclun, spinach and swiss chard)
  • ·         Peas and beans
  • ·         Root crops (carrots, beets, radish, turnips)
  • ·         Onions and Garlic (garlic gets wintered over)

When Should I Sow Seeds For a Fall Garden?

Here is my basic planting schedule for my northern Kentucky location:

In my region, direct sowing in August is not the best idea. Germination will be poor in warm soil. Some gardeners will hose down a fall bed and cover it with shade cloth to reduce soil temperatures. My experience has been that this does not make the soil cool enough and constant watering is necessary.

I start my fall seeds under the shed area of one of my barns. The barn also gets some afternoon shade from trees and this area stays cooler. Remember your fall crops are those plants that like cool weather and ideal germination temps average 60 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I plant most things in yogurt cups, 38 round plugs or 3-inch pots. I like to give their “feet” plenty of room.

Some other ideas I have tried in the past include using shade cloth on the cold frame to start plants but it was still too hot and I had poor germination. I have also tried direct seeding them into the warm summer earth and quickly nixed that idea as well.

Mid to late July I plant fall peas and beans, and one last round of summer squash. The summer squash is one thing that I do direct seed.

At the end of July into early August, I plant broccoli and cabbages in yogurt cups.

Early August I plant greens (lettuce, onions, spinach, mesclun ) in flats. I plant lettuce/greens every two weeks till about October first.

Late August I plant out carrots and beets in the garden and try to be diligent about watering. These do typically get direct seeded, however last year I successfully transplanted beets. Water is very important with starting root crops.

Also in late August, I seed more broccoli, kale, and chard in yogurt cups. I will plant these out in late September, heavily mulched and covered with garden fabric.

If you are a flower gardener September is also the time to plant larkspur and poppies in the ground for the following spring.

In Oct I plant garlic and winter wheat. Both of these crops winter over. I place garlic in a raised bed because it does not like wet feet and can rot if the soil is saturated. I mulch both crops with straw.

Care For Seedlings And Young Plants

Once my seedlings start to germinate I put them out on the picnic table in the morning for a few hours of morning sun and back in the shed in the afternoon. This is more labor intensive but you can easily find a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade and park your flats there. The thing to remember is that the afternoon sun in August is much too strong and hot.

Keep your babies well watered. I water daily to keep the pots moist but not wet. I also fertilize with fish emulsion weekly. This keeps them growing consistently.

I transplant out at about four weeks. If I have been good I have pre-prepped a fall bed, added compost and turned everything over. Sometimes because I am lazy I have put down landscaping fabric to prevent weeds from sprouting. Keep in mind that this black fabric can add several degrees to soil temps.

Moving Into Winter

In late fall, once frost becomes an issue, I begin to protect my plants with row covers. Row covers, also known as garden fabric, protect the plant from late fall frosts and winds. Last year in December I still had a host of salad greens, kale, onions (look for day-neutral ones) cabbage,  broccoli, and chard... the Red Russian kale and the spinach lasted all winter.

Row cover comes in a variety of sizes and weights. For size you will simply find one that works in your plot, however, it is easy to cut, so a large piece is more economical. Weights depend partly on your location and how much frost protection you foresee needing. Keep in mind the heavier the weight the denser the fabric. So a greater weight has more frost protection but less sun transparency.

Row cover can be applied two ways. You can place it directly over the ground and the plants, anchoring down the sides. Or you can insert hoops over the plants to hold the fabric above the plants. I prefer to use hoops. Sometimes when the fabric touches the plants it rubs and causes torn leaves. I also like the hoops because animals (especially my dogs and cats) cannot simply walk over the bed. The hoops make a barrier.

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Garden fabric

Over a raised bed of fall crops

Maintaining Your Fall Garden

Maintenance is much simpler in the fall. Weeds and bugs are winding down. In early fall I continue to fertilize weekly with fish emulsion. I count on my mulch to keep down weeds. As the weather gets cooler I don’t fertilize as much because the plant's reaction to shorter days is to grow slower. If I have a bug problem I control with an organic pesticide such as BT or a soap spray.

In windy weather I try to make sure my garden fabric is attached to the hoops securely. Wind will actually do more damage than cold as it strips the plants of their protective coating.

It is great fun to go out in the cold snowy weather, and gather a basket of greens for winter salads and stir fry’s.

Some Great Books on Fall Gardening (you knew this was coming)

Four Season Harvest and Winter Harvest Handbook both by Elliot Coleman.

Seed Starters by Nancy Bubel.

Ame Vanorio is a freelance writer and the founder/director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center.  Our mission is to provide environmental education programs and serve as a wildlife rehabilitation facility.