Summer's the Perfect Time for Planting Fall Vegetables—Here's How
Summer might be high season in the vegetable garden, when tomatoes, squash, and other warm-season plants are in overdrive, but autumn can be just as productive. If you begin planning and planting in late summer, you can extend your harvest of garden-fresh produce well into fall and even winter by growing cool-season crops. For example, try sowing fast-growing salad crops to quickly fill in the most bedraggled summer vegetable beds. And many sweet root crops like beets and carrots as well as cabbage cousins like kale can continue growing for several weeks beyond the first frost. These tips will help you fill your table with plenty of homegrown goodness long beyond the heat of summer.
It's All About Timing
The secret to growing plentiful fall veggies is timing. That means thinking a little differently because you have to plan backward. Start with your area's average first fall frost date. Then look at the number of days to harvest for the fall vegetable you want to grow. You'll find that number on the seed packet or in the catalog description. Use the days to harvest number to count back from the first frost date. Then add two weeks, because many fall vegetables grow more slowly as days shorten in fall.
Here's an example: If your first fall frost typically occurs around October 31 and you want to grow 'French Breakfast' radishes, which mature in about 25 days, you'd plant them around September 22. In Zones 8-10 where frost is rarely a challenge, you can plant fall vegetable crops as late as December.
Get the Garden Ready
Make room for your fresh crop of fall vegetables by removing garden crops that are no longer performing well (such as tomatoes that have succumbed to disease or peas that have burned out from the heat) or ones you've already harvested (sweet corn, for example). Pull any weeds so they don't steal moisture and nutrients from your new young plants. Take advantage of the open planting bed to incorporate a 2- to 3-inch-layer of well-decomposed compost to get your fall veggies off to a great start.
Start From Seed
You'll probably grow most vegetables for your fall garden from seed. Use the extra seeds you didn't plant in the spring or purchase new ones. If you start your seeds directly outdoors, plant them a little deeper than you would in spring; the soil is typically moister and cooler an extra inch or two down.
Test Garden Tip: If you live in a hot-summer climate, you might need to start seeds of your favorite cool-season vegetables indoors; many do better in air-conditioning than they do in the heat. The basics of starting with seeds are the same in autumn as in spring: Use a high-quality seed-starting mix for best results. If you reuse the containers you used for your seeds in spring, be sure to wash them in a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water to kill any disease organisms that might be lurking about.
Autumn Garden Care
It's especially important to keep your vegetable plants well-watered during the hot months of July, August, and September. The general rule is that most fall garden vegetables do best with about an inch of water a week. Once your seedlings or transplants are established, aim to give them one deep watering a week rather than several lighter waterings.
There may already be pests and diseases in your garden, so keep an eye out for holes or spots on plant leaves. Deal with insects and diseases promptly to minimize the damage.
Extend your growing season later into fall by protecting your plants from frost. Cover the garden with an old sheet, blanket, tarp, or row cover when frost is forecast.
Crops for Speedy Harvest
Get a last blast from your veggie patch with quick crops that go from seed to table in 40 days or less. Sown in September, sprinters such as arugula, mustard, spinach, turnips, and crispy red radishes are ready to harvest in little more than a month. Also try pretty Asian greens, such as tatsoi or mizuna, which grow so fast that you will have baby plants to add to stir-fries and soups just three weeks after sowing.
The hardiest fall vegetables, spinach and kale, often grow well into early winter. Stop harvesting leaves when freezing weather arrives. When protected by a blanket of snow or a plastic tunnel, spinach can survive winter and produce a flush of sweet leaves first thing in spring.
Best Fall Garden Vegetables
Plenty of fall garden veggies thrive in cool temperatures. Count on them to survive light frost if given some protection. Remember, when shopping for seeds for fall veggies, select varieties with the shortest seed-to-harvest time period. In Zones 8-9, where temperatures rarely dip below 20˚F, many of these fall vegetables will grow all winter.