Have you ever noticed that your appetite tends to mimic the seasons? In winter, we crave hearty foods with potatoes, squash, garlic and onions and other cool-season produce. In summer, we're all about the veggies that have a refreshingly high water content and require minimal cooking, like tomatoes, melons, fresh salad greens and cucumbers. Fall is a great in-between season for vegetables—and, depending on your location, you may be able to plant and harvest a fresh crop before the snow falls.|
Second Season PlantingGrowers call fall the "second season," and it can accommodate cool-weather crops like greens and crucifers (think broccoli and cabbage). But the first thing to know about growing and harvesting fall produce—in fact, the key to successful gardening of any kind—is your area's hardiness zone. The National Gardening Association has a handy tool for finding your hardiness zone by zip code. Knowing your zone guides you toward plants that can tolerate the coldest temperatures in your area. (This is why northernmost gardeners shouldn't choose tropical plants for their outdoor landscapes.)
The second key piece of information for successful fall vegetable gardening: knowing your region's first killing frost date. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a list of these dates by state and city.
The third thing you need to know when planning a fall vegetable garden is how many days it takes a particular crop to mature. Say you live in Zone 6, with a first-frost date of roughly October 23. You want to plant lettuce, which can be direct-sown in the ground and takes 30 days to mature. So you should plan to plant no later than mid-September for a successful crop you'll be able to harvest before the frost hits.
5 Crops You Can Plant in the Fall
Garlic is super-fun to grow, and in many zones it can be planted in late fall for a late spring harvest. Simply purchase a head (or several) from your farmers' market or from a seed supplier like Burpee.com. (Do not use grocery-store garlic, which typically is treated to prevent germination, so you don't get the little green shoots sprouting in your pantry.) Separate the cloves, and plant them before the ground freezes, a foot apart in well-cultivated soil, much like you'd plant tulip bulbs. By June (in Zone 6), you'll be ready to harvest. The great thing is, you don't have to have a dedicated vegetable garden to grow garlic: its tall, leafy shoots could go in just about any landscaping bed. Even better: Fresh, homegrown garlic is much more flavorful than the store-bought kind. Here are more tips on growing your own garlic.
Consider bringing your herb plants indoors for winter. This can be a tricky proposition, because your plants need to gradually acclimate for the transition from warm, humid outdoor weather to cool, dry indoor conditions. Thyme, parsley and sage are good candidates for transplanting; avoid basil, which thrives in the heat, and rosemary, which can be finicky about water. Trim back the plants and choose a pot of adequate size (if the pot has been used previously, then wash it with a solution of 10% bleach and 90% water to sterilize it). Use good potting soil, a mix of peat, perlite and fine bark; avoid sand. Place the pots in front of the sunniest window you have (ideally south-facing). If your home tends to be dark, then supplement with a grow light to keep plants healthy.
Because lettuce can be sown directly in the ground (it doesn't require starting indoors) and it's a speedy grower, it's a great fall crop for many zones. Choose quick-growing varieties, like a mesclun mix (30 days), and opt for loose leaf, or "cutting," types (you can cut individual leaves as they get large enough, without having to wait for a full head of lettuce to mature). Arugula, a lively, peppery green that germinates quickly and grows to maturity in just 35 days, is another good fall option, as is spinach, which can handle cooler weather. Burpee.com is a great source for lettuces and salad greens suited to fall gardening.
Radishes & Carrots
Radishes are super fast-growing, taking just 25 days to mature. And they, too, can be direct-sown in the garden in early fall. Carrots take about 65 days to mature, but they can tolerate colder weather if you're careful to place mulch on top of the rows so the ground doesn't freeze.
Good Crops for Fall Harvests
Many of the veggies that are harvested in fall—the ones you're beginning to see in farmers markets now—actually need to be planted in mid- to late-summer. See SparkPeople's excellent resource on vegetable gardening for info on when and how to plant these crops.
Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower—those staples of the fall dinner table— thrive in autumn weather, and their flavors benefit from colder temps. They can be planted in fall in more southern zones, but need to be started from seed indoors. Plan now for next summer; start seedlings in midsummer and plant in late summer for a fall harvest.
Acorn, butternut, pumpkin and other winter squash varieties are not only delicious, but they're traditional in fall and holiday decor. These, too, must be planted in summer for a fall harvest, as they take up to 100 days to maturity and like lots of sun. And they take up significant growing space, often sending out long vines that need room to move. Plan now for next summer.
Leafy, hearty, nutrient-packed greens like kale and chard are also commonly found at farmers' markets in the fall; they, too, need time to reach maturity (about two to two and a half months). While they can tolerate cool fall weather, they require full sun and should be planted in late summer to reach full production.
Don't let the last days of summer be the end of your vegetable garden. With proper planning, you can plant a summer crop that is ready for a fall harvest, and start some veggies now (indoors or out) that you can enjoy before winter creeps in—and even next summer!