Fall gardening is a great way to extend the growing season and eat fresh vegetables into the fall and sometimes even the winter. Fall gardening also has several other advantages over the traditional spring/summer garden. One big advantage is that there are significantly fewer insect pests around to destroy your crops. Another advantage is you don't need to worry about summer coming on too quickly and your plants bolting too soon. For the northern garden, some of the best crops to plant for a fall garden include lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, mustard greens, kale, chard, peas, cauliflower, turnips, collards, carrots, and more. Basically, anything you would plant in the spring can be planted again in the fall. The following are a few tips for a successful fall garden.
Tip #1: Time your Planting!
Timing when to plant your fall garden is probably the most important factor. To determine the proper timing, you need two pieces of information. First, you need to know the average first frost date for your area. This is the date in the fall where on average (generally 50% of the time) the first hard or killing frost occurs. Remember, this is just an average so it is possible that the first frost may actually occur a week or two or even more in either direction.
To determine your average first frost date, you can use a website such as the one by the National Climatic Data Center which gives the average frost dates for both spring and fall at various probabilities (I generally use the 50% one). There are plenty of other websites that give similar information but each one may vary slightly so you may want to check a few sites to get reliable date from multiple sources.
The second piece of information you need is the average number of days to harvest for each vegetable you plant. This generally can be found on your packet of seeds. Different varieties of the same vegetable can vary greatly so you want to make sure you are using the dates from your specific variety not generic information for a general type of vegetable. In general, however, spinach, lettuce, and other greens grow quickly and will require fewer days to harvest and so can be planted in late summer or even early fall depending on your zone. Other vegetables that take longer to mature such as broccoli or cauliflower you will need to plant sooner, such as mid to late summer, again, depending on your zone. For example, if your vegetable takes 50 days to harvest and your average first frost date is October 1st then you would want to plant your seeds around August 12th which is 50 days before the average last frost date.
Spinach and mustard greens grow quickly and can be planted later or multiple plantings staggered throughout late summer and early fall.
Tip #2: Water your Seeds!
Most years you will need to water more when planting a fall garden than for a summer garden. In general, we receive more rain in the spring and early summer so nature does a great job watering for us during those months. However, in our zone most of our planting for a fall garden needs to be done in mid-July to late-August. This is generally a drier time for much of the Northeast and Midwest so in order to receive optimal germination I usually water every 1-2 days until the seeds germinate and a good root system is established.
Chinese cabbage and traditional cabbage grow much better in the fall when insects and slugs are less active.
Tip #3: Cover your Plants!
If your first frost comes earlier than expected there are ways to protect your plants so you don’t lose your crops. The best way is to cover your plants to provide a few degrees of protection. The easiest way is to cover larger areas with a tarp or plastic of some kind. For individual plants, you can cover them with a milk jug with the top or bottom cut off or a pot or bucket. This can be time consuming depending on the size of your garden. Alternatively, you can plant your veggies in a greenhouse or cold frame. This requires more money upfront to build a greenhouse or cold frame. Most people are familiar with a greenhouse however a cheaper and easier version is to build a cold frame. This involves simply adding a clear “lid” to the top of a raised bed. This is generally glass or plastic. Many people recycle old windows and fit them to the top of a raised bed. The key with a cold frame is that they need to be lifted up to vent during the warm days and then closed at night to protect the plants from frost. Cold frames and greenhouses can significantly lengthen your growing season particularly in northern climates.
Collards, peas, and broccoli are all great options for a fall garden.
My family and I recently moved from the New York City area to small town Wisconsin. Our move, this website and blog, and our Etsy store is the result of our desire over the past several years to simplify our lives, increase our quality of life, reconnect with nature, and enjoy a more self-sufficient life. I grew up as a country kid in central PA working on my grandfather's fruit farm and as a corn "de-tassler". My background is in biology where my love of nature originated. I used to work as a research scientist and professor and have now transitioned to a part-time stay-at-home mom, self-employed tutor, and small business owner. Thank you for taking the time to check out my site.