As autumn’s chill is in the forecast, you might think that it’s time to wrap up the garden, but there is a wide range of cold-hardy plants that thrive in the cooler fall weather. Instead of closing everything down, why not replant and keep your garden’s production up until – and in a few cases even after – your first fall frost.
Here’s a comprehensive guide to fall gardening, including changes in garden management, which plants are best suited for fall weather, how to extend the season in the garden while protecting your plants from the cold and which plants are good to bring in and enjoy fresh produce long into the winter.
Maximize Your Produce This Year With Our Fall Garden Guide
Determining Remaining Growing Time
As you start working on what kind of plants you’ll be putting in the ground, you’ll need to start by finding out what your area’s average first frost date is, the average date at which the first autumn frost will hit. These range from August 25 in northern reaches of USDA Zone 1 to December 13 in southerly reaches of Zone 9, so it’s important to find out exactly what your area’s first frost date.
Once you’ve determined your average first frost date, count backward to determine about how many months, weeks or days you have left before you are likely to have to deal with a frost. It’s not the end of your garden’s growing period, but some tender plants may not survive a strong frost without appropriate protections for the plants. Others, such as cabbage-family brassicas, spinach, beets and kale will continue producing even after a frost, even when they have little to no protection from the frost.
Selecting Appropriate Plants for the Season
The next step of the process will be selecting plants that do well in the cool and cold weather. There is a wide range of plants that you could consider, many of which are the same produce varieties that you plant in the spring. Peas and beans work well going into the fall, especially if you get them into the ground with sufficient time to grow their vines before it becomes too cold for production.
Onions, brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, herbs, lettuce and other greens work well in a fall garden, including spinach, which is an excellent option for fall gardens that produce long into the year, thriving in temperatures as low as the mid-20s. But when should you get each of these plants into the ground?
- Beets can be sown with seeds that have been soaked overnight to boost germination. If you’re in a hot area, try planting the seeds under your taller crops to provide shade, such as tomatoes or peppers. Once the temps get cooler, you can remove the taller crops and allow the beets to thrive.
- Radishes turn around very quickly, able to be grown from seed to harvest in four weeks. Much as beets, they can be planted in hot areas beneath taller plants that are ending their season, allowing you to take advantage of their shade.
- Carrots do well in the fall, though they are frost-tender for most varieties. The tops can be dried for parsley flakes on a wide range of dishes, providing a quick dash of color, and the bottoms can be eaten raw or roasted for amazing flavor.
- Broccoli and cauliflower are able to be shown in the garden directly in late summer or may be planted from transplants to ensure they don’t bolt in warmer temperatures. Though the plants themselves are cold-hardy, the growing, edible flower buds are sensitive to freezing temperatures, so make sure to protect them in the cold.
- Brussels sprouts are small, cabbage-like sprouts that grow on the side of the plant’s stalks, and are able to take a little frost. In cold climates, they can be started in the spring and produce through the summer, while in warm climates they can be started in a fall garden and grown through the winter and into early spring, before summer’s heat kills the plants off.
- Turnips can be planted in the late summer to early fall, and are delicious roasted. They’re ready when the roots start popping up above the soil line, with smaller roots having a more tender texture and flavor.
- Collard greens are a popular Southern green option, but are able to be grown either in the spring or fall’s cooler temperatures. Tasting sweeter when they’ve been touched by light frost, they will grow well into fall for cooler climates or even through the winter in southern climates.
- Green onions are able to be directly sown in the late summer, either in the form of seeds or onion sets. Because they tend to do well in the wild in many parts of the country, it can be harvested through fall and early winter, even coming back up in the spring in Zone 6 and further south. If they come back in the spring, allow them to grow into full-size onions for kitchen use.
- Kohlrabi is an Asiatic green in the Brassica family, which also includes cabbage and broccoli, a good reason why its leaves have a cabbage-like flavor and the stems milder, sweeter broccoli-like flavor. Grown in as quickly as six weeks, they do well in deeper cold temperatures. If it grows much past that point, you may want to boil and then sauté the chopped stems rather than eating them fresh.
- Lettuce doesn’t do well in extreme cold, such as freezing temperatures, but up until that point, it will thrive in fall’s cooler temperatures. Working well in fall container gardens, frost-tender lettuce can be quickly moved indoors at the threat of a cold night, while floating row covers do a great job of keeping your plants doing well during light frosts.
- Beans and peas grow well in cool weather, but you’ll want to choose a short-season variety if at all possible, as they will mature more quickly and be more likely to produce peas before it gets too cold to continue growing. Plant beans when temperatures start getting below the 80s and peas when temps start dropping into the 70s.
- Kale is another great green that is better for northern climates, often growing through the winter in more mild parts of the country. You’ll sow the seeds directly in the early fall, then enjoy the harvest of tasty greens for many weeks to come. Simply chop and sauté the leaves with a little oil.
- Parsnips are a root vegetable in the carrot family that can be sown in late summer or early fall to be harvested after the first frost. Keeping well in the garden throughout the winter, the flavor of parsnips is improved by frost and is wonderful chopped and stir-fried to bring out the root vegetable’s sweetness, making it great combined with turnips and carrots.
- Radicchio is a colorful head-forming leafy green, and is a leafy form of chicory. It has a spicy, bitter flavor that mellows significantly when the green is sautéed or stir-fried. Taking about three months to reach maturity, radicchio does well late into fall, even lasting into winter in warmer parts of the country, and provides a colorful point of interest for your late garden.
Any of these vegetables will do well for your fall garden, allowing you to enjoy your harvest nearly until the holidays, and in some cases, well beyond for warmer parts of the country. Check the varieties that you’re considering and make sure that they’ll work well in the amount of time you have left for your growing season to err on the side of caution.
Amend Your Soil to Maximize Growth
Just as you would in the spring of the year, you’ll want to consider adding nutrients to your soil or otherwise amending it when you’re preparing your garden for the fall. Your garden’s soil has worked very hard producing a range of produce for your garden, and so it’s important to add soil amendments and liquid plant foods to provide a quick nutritional boost for your garden’s soil.
By adding these nutrients, you’re providing your plants with what they need to really take off before the cold weather hits. This allows for maximum growth to ensure that the plants will reach a harvestable stage prior to dying from a heavy frost or going dormant for the winter. Many gardeners prefer liquid plant foods at this time because it is much easier to incorporate it through the soil, as it simply soaks in with irrigation water.
Protecting Your Harvest From the Cold
When you start to hit the point that frost and freeze damage can be a real concern, you’ll want to be ready to provide protection to more frost-sensitive plants, allowing you to get a few more weeks of production at the end of the season. Lightweight fabric such as bedsheets or newspaper can cover your tender plants in a pinch, though for serious gardeners, floating row covers that can simply be pulled back during the day may be a better bet. Put these materials over your plants in the evening, then remove them or roll them back when the temperatures rise above freezing in the morning.
Other options are setting up a smudging pile, where one or more piles of smoldering damp leaves are set upwind of the garden and the smoke is allowed to drift over the plants in your garden, creating a warmer zone. You could also use misters to provide protection from light frosts, with the warmer water in the mist keeping plants above the freezing temperatures that can damage them. If you started using a misting system this summer to keep plants cool, the same equipment can be used in the fall to keep them warm. You could also add a heavy layer of Bermuda hay mulch to provide a layer of protection between your plants and the freezing temperatures.
Bringing in Plants for Winter Production
Among the options available for keeping your garden over the winter, if you have space available, is to bring some plants in for the winter. For tomatoes, peppers and nightshades, you’ll want to start making those preparations now, before they start to wane for the winter. However, a wide range of cool-season herbs can also be potted up, brought indoors and placed in a sunny window for the winter season to deliver a pinch or two of amazing flavor to your winter meals. If you don’t have access to a sunny window, you could also consider adding a grow light to help keep your plants receiving enough light to stay healthy and productive.
To pot up these plants, you’ll want a pot that is about as wide as the plant’s canopy, which can be rather large for a tomato plant, or very small for a herb plant that you’ve picked up at the grocery store. You’ll want to make sure the planter has a decent width at the bottom to prevent the planter from tipping over in enclosed spaces inside your home. You’ll need to make sure to stay on top of watering these plants two to three times a week, and the plants will be happy being misted at the same time, as central HVAC systems tend to be somewhat drying compared to the great outdoors.
By keeping these techniques in mind for your fall garden, you can ensure that you’re still getting plenty of production out of your plot without a lot of extra work and while realizing exceptional harvests. If you are ready to make the changes necessary to get your fall garden into production, why not take a look at what Redbud Soil Company can provide for high-quality garden materials? Soil amendments, no-till dressing blends and great gardening advice are always ready to go, just take a few moments and reach out today to get started.