Do you want to grow more food and extend the harvest for as long as possible? If so, I suggest you plant a fall vegetable garden. Fall is THE time to grow a rainbow of hardy greens, fast-growing root crops, and autumn superstars like scallions, broccoli, and kohlrabi. However, it’s important to note that while the harvest takes place in autumn (and even winter with protection), the planting of these crops begins in summer.
3 considerations when it’s time to plant a fall vegetable garden
Most fall and winter crops are planted in August and September when temperatures are sky-high and the soil is dry. This can make establishing crops tricky, but don’t let that stop you from deciding to plant a fall vegetable garden. With a few savvy techniques you can overcome these challenges. For more detailed information on growing into autumn and winter, check out my books, Growing Under Cover and The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.
1) Getting the timing right: The big question – when do you plant fall vegetables? As mentioned above, most are seeded in mid to late summer. Not specific enough? No problem! You can pinpoint exactly when to plant with two pieces of information:
- Your first frost date (mine is around October 10th)
- The days to maturity needed for your chosen crop to grow.
Once you have this information, you can calculate the when to plant. For example, Hakurei turnips take approximately 38 days from seed to harvest (Find ‘days to maturity’ listed in the seed catalog or on the seed company website). But, with the waning light of autumn, I like to add another week to the growing period to account for the shorter days. That means, I can expect my Hakurei turnnips to take 45 days from seed to harvest. Now I just count backwards 45 days from my first expected frost date of October 10th and I land on August 26th. I need to plant Hakurei turnips no later than August 26th to ensure a fall harvest. That’s my last planting date, however. I can plant earlier or even stagger a few sowings to spread out the harvest. Timing is everything when you’re trying to plant a fall vegetable garden.
2) Soil first: Healthy soil = healthy plants. As gardeners, this is our mantra no matter if we grow edibles or ornamentals. In spring, I work compost and other soil amendments into my veggie garden beds and I give them a top-up when I prep for fall planting. To ready beds for fall crops, remove any spent plant debris and weeds. Then, dress the soil with a thin layer of compost, worm castings, or aged manure, lightly incorporating it into the bed with a garden fork or cultivator. Finally, plant! Remember to keep soil moist until seeds germinate and the young plants are growing well.
3) Beat the heat! Mid to late summer is often a hot, dry period in the garden. Many cool season crops, like lettuce, spinach and arugula, won’t germinate when temperatures are above 80 F (27 C) making it tough to establish fall crops. However, I have a few sneaky tricks to get around the challenging weather conditions when it’s time to plant a fall vegetable garden:
- Use grow-lights. Put grow-lights to work by starting seedlings for broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, and other fall crops indoors in mid to late summer. This will allow you to grow high quality seedlings ready to plug into the garden. Harden them off before moving them to the garden by placing them in a shaded spot for a few days, followed by a few days in full sun.
- Provide shelter. In fall and winter, I use mini hoop tunnels covered in greenhouse plastic to shelter crops from frost and cold weather. In summer, I use mini hoop tunnels covered in shade cloth or row cover to shelter crops from the hot sun. I use 40% shade cloth which also helps prevent soil water evaporation and allows me to use less water when establishing crops.
The 10 best vegetables to grow in fall
The key to a successful fall (and even winter) harvest is to pair the right crops with the right season. Don’t plant heat-loving, frost-sensitive crops like beans or zucchini in late summer. Unless you’re in a warm region, they won’t have enough time to mature before the first frost. Instead, when you’re ready to plant a fall vegetable garden, look to the cool weather lovers like hardy salad greens and root crops. Read seed catalogs carefully to find out which crops, and which specific varieties are best for autumn.
1) Spinach – Autumn is prime time for spinach. It loves the cool temperatures and ample moisture of fall, and doesn’t bolt quickly like it does in spring. Plant successive crops of spinach seed from mid-August until mid-September so that you will have plenty of spinach for salads and cooking. For the fall garden, opt for cold tolerant varieties like Bloomsdale, Space, and Avon.
2) Kale – Are you bored of kale yet? No? Fantastic because neither am I. How could you be bored of such a versatile, hardy, gorgeous green? Plus, there are so many awesome varieties to grow. One of my favorites for fall is Prizm, an All-America Selections winner with compact growth and ruffly leaves. I’m also partial to Toscano (AKA dinosaur kale), which is delicious and ornamental with narrow, deep green leaves. I also sow seed for very cold tolerant kales like Winterbor and Red Russian so we can harvest all winter long. Plant kale seed thickly in garden beds for a dense crop of baby leaves or space seeds three inches apart, eventually thinning to 12 to 18-inches for mature plants.
3) Lettuce – Lettuce is the backbone of the fall salad garden, but don’t for one moment think that garden-grown lettuce is boring. Lettuce is extremely ornamental, with a ridiculous range of leaf colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. This is where you can really play in a garden, plantings checkerboards of green and red varieties in raised beds, or an edge of frilly lettuce at the front of your flower gardens. Lettuce seed sulks when the weather is above 80 F (27 C), so I start seeds indoors under grow-lights, moving the young plants to the garden in late August. Great choices to plant a fall vegetable garden include Red Saladbowl, Winter Density, Rouge D’Hiver, Outredgeous, and Vulcan.
4) Turnips – When I first started growing turnips, I planted them for their tender-crisp, sweet roots, but then I fell in love with the leaves. Turnip tops are a top-notch salad green and packed with nutrients. They’re also super speedy to grow, with most roots ready to pull in just 5 to 6 weeks! Try Hakurei, a farmers market favorite with golf ball-sized roots and Purple Top White Globe, the classic garden turnip.
5) Beets – By the time we finish pulling the last of our spring planted beets, I’m ready to seed the fall crop. Earthy, sweet and easy to grow, beets are among our favorite garden vegetables. Lately, I’ve fallen for golden and white-rooted beets. They have a mild, sweet flavor, and don’t stain every surface in my kitchen like red beets. Best bets for beets include Avalanche, an award-winning white variety with fast-growing roots, or Touchstone Gold, a selection with bright gold roots and deep green tops.
6) Asian greens – When it’s time to plant a fall vegetable garden, don’t forget about this diverse and delicious group of greens. There are a lot of great greens that fall into this category, with most appreciating the shorter and cooler days of autumn. From mild mizuna to spicy mustard, crunchy pak choi to tender tatsoi, we love the broad range of Asian greens available through seed catalogs. Of course, there’s also the many looseleaf Chinese cabbages like Tokyo Bekana, Chirimen Hakusai, and Maruba Santoh that can be planted in late summer for September through November salads and stir-fries.
7) Kohlrabi – Kohlrabi is the poster crop for underrated vegetables. Let’s change that! This cabbage family cousin deserves a place in every fall (and spring) garden. It produces a rounded stem that can be cooked, but we prefer it enjoy it raw on vegetable trays or sliced with dinner. And the leaves are also edible and are delicious when stir-fried or sautéed with garlic. There are a few different varieties of kohlrabi, with some needing a longer growing season. For fall, I like to grow White or Purple Vienna, or Kolibri, a fast-growing variety with bright purple stems that grow about three inches in diameter.
8) Radishes – Once mid-August rolls around, I’m planting radish seeds every week. For the first few weeks, it’s the slower growing winter radishes like Watermelon, Long White Icicle, and Black Spanish. Once September arrives, it’s time to start seeding spring-type radishes like French Breakfast, Sparkler White Tip, Roxanne, and Sweet Baby. Radishes are so colorful – in the garden and on the plate – so don’t be shy about trying new varieties.
9) Carrots – For well over a decade, carrots have been the MVP in our fall and winter garden. Everyone loves the crisp, sweet roots and I plant plenty in my raised beds as well as my cold frames. Fall and winter carrots, however, have to be seeded in mid-summer and my seed sowing begins in late July. By early August, I’m done planting carrots and we look forward pulling varieties like Napoli, Ya-ya, Mokum, and Bolero from October through March.
10) Cilantro – This is a love-it-or-leave-it herb, but in my family, we LOVE it. Cilantro is notorious for its short-lived harvests, but if you plant for a fall crop, the cool temperatures and lower light will extend the harvest into late autumn. Improved varieties like Santo or Calypso can be sown in garden beds and containers now.
To learn more about fall vegetable gardening, check out these posts:
- A fall vegetable garden checklist
- 3 ways to grow vegetables in the winter
- Vegetables that taste better after a frost
Are you going to plant a fall vegetable garden?