The dog days of summer are upon us: the days are long, the weeds are longer, and the really laborious harvesting sessions have only just begun in earnest. It sounds like sheer lunacy to take on more work at this moment – and yet, now is the ideal time to start planning your fall vegetable garden.
If you’re blessed with a fairly long growing season like we are here in Kentucky (Zone 6), autumn provides an excellent opportunity to sow root vegetables for winter storage, whether stashed in a cellar or left in the soil.
And although fall gardens tend to lack the glamor or popularity that summer crops enjoy, most gardeners insist that cool-weather crops like greens, brassicas, and root veggies taste better when grown in the fall, as compared to their springtime cohorts.
Planning for a fall garden isn’t any more complicated than it is for spring or summer, but there are some specific elements that must be addressed. This list will help you work through the process so you can move forward and start sowing seeds right on schedule.
1. What is the first frost date for your region?
The average date of the first frost in your location is definitely the first thing you need to know before you go any further. All of your planting and transplanting will be planned by counting back from this date.
The usual timeframe that gardeners consider for their fall garden is 12-14 weeks before your first frost. See? You really do need to plan pretty far ahead to stay on top of this.
Where we live outside Louisville, Kentucky, our first frost date is generally accepted as October 15th. Counting back 14 weeks, we arrive at July 9th – shoot, I’m already running behind! I won’t let that discourage me, though, and neither should you. We could easily grow more food than we’d know what to do with in 12 weeks’ time, and anyway, the first frost won't kill my cold-hardy fall plants.
2. What can you grow in the cooler months?
The options for annual vegetables in the fall are more or less the same as in spring – essentially, you can choose from leafy greens, brassicas, and roots. Legumes such as peas and green beans are also great options at this time of year. The following list is far from comprehensive, of course, but it should give you a sense of the kinds of crops you’ll want to focus on.
- Bok Choi
- Brussels Sprouts
Greens are perishable and not easily stored, but they can supply vital minerals and nutrients through the fall season. Brassicas can be canned, frozen, dried, fermented, or cooked in soups and stews to be put away for winter. Roots can be preserved, stored in cold cellars, or, in many climates, simply left in the ground to be harvested as needed through the winter months.
3. How will you protect your fall crops in the summer?
Many plants that thrive in the fall need to be started when conditions are not exactly ideal for them. To get a decent fall broccoli or collard crop, for example, you will probably need some way to protect your fragile young seedlings from the hardy, hungry cabbage worms who’ve already decimated your fully grown spring brassicas. Floating row covers are a good idea in this particular instance.
You may also need to shelter your seedlings from especially hot and especially wet or dry conditions, which are typical for most of us across North America by July or August. Root crops appreciate the warmer temperatures of summer for germination, so direct seeding makes sense. Brassicas, on the other hand, generally need a cooler setting. This could mean starting seeds in an especially sunny room in your house, or setting up grow lights in an unused corner of the garage.
4. Are you able to continue growing in the winter?
Believe it or not, the answer to this question is almost definitely “yes” if you live somewhere that doesn’t experience temperatures in the negatives for most of the winter – and even then, it’s ultimately a matter of resourcefulness. Here in Kentucky, we had lettuce, escarole, radicchio, radishes, and turnips not only growing but thriving as late as mid-December in 2015, without any kind of protection from the elements.
Growing in raised beds is helpful for the colder months, as the soil within your boxes will stay warmer than it would at ground level. And even if snow, ice, extreme temperatures and long-term freezes are concerns in your area, you can easily construct tunnels, hoop houses, cold frames, and other structures to house your plants over the winter.
Or simply leave them in the ground, exposed to the elements, and see what happens. You will be surprised to see how your plants continue to thrive, or lay dormant but ready to be harvested at any time, as the temperature drops. Some gardeners even plant carrots, spinach and other cold-hardy crops late in fall so that they will over-winter and be ready to harvest just as the soil begins to thaw, but before spring plantings begin. And let’s not forget the mighty garlic, which must be planted in October or November to be harvested the following summer.