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Expert Tips on Planting a Fall Garden

Cooler temperatures make gardening a more pleasant experience. So start now to enjoy healthy, delicious homegrown vegetables throughout autumn. These tips on timing, sowing, and growing will help.

Fall garden filled with swiss chard iStock

Sure, summer steals the limelight with its bounty of juicy tomatoes and crisp cukes, but believe it or not, fall is ideal for growing certain types of crops, including healthy leafy greens and hearty root vegetables. And big bonus: The cooler weather means fewer bugs and weeds to pester plants, plus it’s simply more comfortable for you (i.e., less sweaty!) to putter in the garden once the dog days are officially over.

Whether you’ve spent the last few months diligently tending a veggie patch or were too busy to even begin, this advice will help you get an autumn garden going. Go ahead and sow some fall-friendly seeds now, and you may be harvesting as early as homecoming and perhaps still picking by the holidays.

What to Know Before You Start

As a general rule, fall crops flourish when daytime temperatures are 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures in the 50s. That said, before you plant a single seed, make sure you know your USDA hardiness zone, the approximate date of the first frost in your area, and how long it takes for your preferred crops to become reap-ready.

Your hardiness zone (find it here) specifies the average annual minimum temperature in the region where you live—this basic info will help you learn if a desired crop can thrive there. The other two pieces of information will allow you to determine your garden’s window of opportunity. Look up the first-frost data—when temperatures will likely dip to 32 degrees Fahrenheit—in your area via the zip code search tools on Almanac or Garden.org, or simply ask your local extension service office or a trusted nearby nursery.

The “days to maturity” of a particular plant is commonly cited on the seed packaging and/or online description. This is how you figure out when is the best time to plant. For example, if the crop you wish to grow takes 60 days to mature and your first frost is expected by November 3, you’ll want to get those seeds going by the first week in September. If you’re too late in the season, don’t fret. You may still be able to purchase healthy starter plants from a reliable nursery as a shortcut.

Tips for Planting a Fall Garden

Remember that this general guideline will give plants a good head start. Once they reach maturity, many fall crops can withstand frost and may even benefit from it, developing richer flavor.

Choose Fast-Growing, Hardy Crops

Armed with your fall climate information, it’s time to select seeds. Know that some chill-tolerant vegetables, such as carrots and onions, may not germinate or grow very quickly, so they’re not the best option for folks who want immediate gratification from a fall garden. Some cool-weather crops that are considered fast growing (45 to 60 days to maturity) include:

  • A host of leafy greens, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, and various lettuces. Greens typically like full sun, ample water, and well-draining soil.
  • Root vegetables such as beets, radishes, and turnips are low-maintenance options that can flourish in full sun to partial shade. Just be sure to water conscientiously.
  • Cruciferous favorites in the Brassica family, such as broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, do best in full sun but can withstand partial shade. They typically need ample water and well-draining soil.

Once you’ve settled on the veggie varieties you wish to plant, do further research on fertilizing, mulching, and any other special needs to help those crops thrive.

How to Get the Most from Your Fall Garden

By following these tips, ensure your autumn plants produce a robust, healthy harvest.

Prep the soil

Remove any weeds and remnants of your spring-sown crops, then till the soil to fluff it up. Have the fertilizer, mulch, compost, and/or amendments on hand to give your seeds a good start.

Sow seeds properly

Many fall vegetable seeds can be planted directly in garden soil. However, you need to make sure to follow the instructions on the packet. How far apart and how deep you plant them makes a big difference.

Water well

You may need to be especially generous with water during the first few weeks to maintain an adequate level of moisture in the topmost inch of soil while seeds are germinating.

Pay attention to the weather

If there is a dry spell or a series of rainstorms in your area, it may need to increase or decrease the watering requirements.

Research ripeness

Study how your fall crops should look and feel when they’re ready to pick. For example, Brussels sprouts, which mature from the bottom of the stalk up, will be about an inch in diameter and feel firm between your fingers.

With kale, the longer it stays in the ground, the better it tastes, so look for dark green leaves with a sturdy, almost fabric-like texture. Tip: Rather than cut the whole head, remove kale leaves as needed for cooking and the plant will keep growing.

Pick when perfect

Remember that frost can be a boon to your fall garden, so don’t let those initial cold days scare you into harvesting too soon—if you do, you may miss out on peak flavor. Spinach and beets, for instance, can typically tolerate a light freeze (28 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit), while hardy Brassica will be just fine following several freezes of 24 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit.