Episode 016: Why You Should Start A Fall Garden (Yes, In August)

episode highlights

  • Learn how to extend your harvest period well into the colder months and discover the joys of fall gardening regardless of your experience level.
  • Uncover the benefits and challenges of fall gardening, such as enjoying fresh produce from September until March, dealing with fewer pests, and facing difficulties with summer sowing and transplanting.
  • Discover specific crops that are well suited for fall planting including brassicas, peas, onions, garlic, root crops, various greens, and herbs.

Fall gardening is often associated with experienced gardeners. It’s thought of as something that comes into play after several gardening seasons. However, I am here to debunk that myth and to guide you through the wonderful world of autumn gardening. Whether you’re an old hand at gardening or just starting out, there’s so much joy to be found in fall gardening.

The Basics of Fall Gardening

Fall gardening is all about working with the seasons. You’re either hoping to harvest before the weather cools or planting crops in the summer so they can overwinter in the garden. You might be surprised to know that fall gardening offers improved pest control and an extended harvest period, allowing you to enjoy fresh produce from September until March.

However, like any other gardening season, fall gardening comes with its own set of challenges. The warm temperatures, dry soil, and lack of spring rainfalls can make it difficult to germinate seeds, especially those of cold-weather crops like lettuce. But, with the right strategies and techniques, these challenges can be overcome.

Tips for Successful Fall Gardening

One strategy to extend your growing season is relay planting, where you overlap your first planting with the second planting to make the most of your space. You could also use low tunnels or a greenhouse to protect your plants from the harsh winter weather.

Various crops do well in fall, including brassicas, peas, onions, garlic, root crops, and greens like spinach, arugula, lettuce, and mizuna. Herbs such as cilantro, chives, parsley, mint, and lemon balm can also be planted in the fall for a harvest.

Overcoming Challenges in Fall Gardening

The trickier parts of fall gardening include dealing with summer sowing, transplanting, and managing harsh winter weather. For example, the dry soil and the hot sun can make it difficult to germinate seeds. To overcome this, I prefer to sow seeds indoors and transplant them out. This allows me to control the environment more conveniently than when direct sowing in the garden.

Harsh winter weather can wash away your seeds and cause erosion if you’re not mulching. However, preventive measures like using row covers or low tunnels can protect your plants from direct contact with the snow or the continual freezes.

With the right strategies and a bit of preparation, you can transform your garden into a bountiful harvest during the colder months. Whether you’re an experienced gardener or just starting out, fall gardening is a journey worth embarking on.

So why not give it a try this year? You might be pleasantly surprised by the results!
Here are a couple of the books I mention. They’re well worth a read!

Episode Transcript

Hello, hello and welcome back to Organic Gardening for Beginners. I am Jessica, your host from the blog Homegrown Food and Flowers, and this show is geared all towards getting you started with your first, second, third or beyond garden, so that you are producing as much food and as many flowers as you can squeeze into whatever space you are working with. Today we are talking about a fall garden and why you should start one, and I know that usually the first reaction to hearing that, even sometimes with myself, is already it’s August, I’m harvesting my tomatoes, my cucumbers, my basil. Why in the world would I start thinking about a fall garden already? That’s exactly what we’re going to dive into in this episode of why you should start thinking about it now, why you should grow one at all, and a few of those little key points to get you started and teed up for the rest of this month. So let’s jump in Okie dokie. So fall gardening is not usually associated with beginner gardeners. It’s usually something that you only start reading about or learning about once you have several seasons under your belt, and I don’t really know why that is, and I’m guessing it’s something as simple, as it’s just not considered a traditional garden starting time that goes handily to spring. Maybe it’s because there are some more advanced techniques, such as season extension, that you might not have heard of as a beginner, but whatever the case, we’re bringing it back because fall gardens can really be awesome, and I would definitely encourage you to start thinking about starting one for this year, especially if you ran out of time this summer and you didn’t get a summer garden in, or a spring garden for that matter. 

Fall gardening is a lot different than spring and summer gardening, so I will state that right off the bat, fall gardening is working with the idea that you are planting crops in the summertime that you are either hoping to harvest before the fall, before the weather cools, or you get your first snow, your first freeze, or it’s crops that you’re going to plant in the summer so that they can get to a certain size, to where they can overwinter in the garden, and they’ve grown big enough, they’re sturdy enough, resilient enough that, even if they get a frost, they’ll still survive until spring, when they resume their growth Once the days get a bit longer, the temperatures warm up, and then you harvest whatever that crop is. So two different types of crops that you can plant, and this goes for flowers, herbs and vegetables all three crops. As far as harvesting in the fall, before your first frost, or overwintering the plant and getting a very early spring harvest, or, I will add, in a third type, there are ones that you can kind of do both, that you pick from throughout the winter, such as kale. Kale is a very popular plant overwinter because it’s super easy. You can plant it now in August and then start harvesting leaves in the fall and throughout the winter, and then once again in spring it’s going to resume its growth and you’ll get lots of fresh leaves. Really, if you plant it right, you can be harvesting fresh produce from your garden and a few fresh flowers here and there, depends on what type From September, when most gardens are starting to wind down, up until March, when the spring garden is going in. 

The reason that some of the plants need to get to a certain size before the first frost and the days get really short is because once day length is less than 10 hours, most plants stop growing. They just go dormant. So that’s why you need those plants, whether it’s a kale, a cabbage, a scabiosa flower that you’re overwintering. You need them to get to a decent size, like I’d mentioned before, because once those days get too short, they’ll just stop growing, and if they’re too small, then they might be a little bit more vulnerable to the colder temperatures. So we’re trying to beat that dormancy period of less than 10 hours of daylight. 

Alrighty, let’s talk about some of the benefits of fall gardening, one of which you already heard me talk about, which is that you get to extend your harvest season by months. Instead of your harvest window ending at the end of your summer garden, when your tomatoes are done producing, you’re harvesting the last of your summer squash, your flowers, whatever it is that you’ve got, instead, your, your harvest window will continue on, so that you are getting fresh produce through October, november, december, january, up until your spring crops start to come into their own and take over. It’s awesome. If you have missed summer summer planting, I should say, and you’re just getting started Maybe you moved, maybe your summer just got crazy busy, maybe you were on vacation and the garden got overrun, or it died, or your weather’s just been too dry. Whatever the reason, this is kind of like a redo, a new opportunity to start a garden instead of waiting until next spring and being in your backyard food desert for the next six months. 

It can be great to start a fall garden if you are kind of waiting for a slower season. A lot of the busyness of summer has passed, but also just the weather. It’s a slower season where things aren’t growing as quickly. Things are a little bit slower to mature. Your life Well, aside from getting the kids back to school, your life might be a little bit slower so you have more time to get outside. It’s just a different feel than the hubbub of spring and everything bursting into bloom and you know you’re trying to get stuff in the ground by a certain date. It can be just a different yeah, a different vibe to garden in the fall. That can be really enjoyable. 

Along that same line, there are also fewer bugs in the fall and winter season I should say pests I mean. Granted, in general there are fewer bugs because of the cold temperatures, but that can be to your benefit because the peak breeding and igling time of a lot of pests has passed and so it won’t be as big of an issue Now. Of course. On the other hand, that also means there will be fewer beneficial insects and predatory insects there to defend your plants if you do have some sort of pest issue, so you know they balance each other out. But if you have noticed in your summer garden that your plants are under a lot of pest pressure, then this might be a great season for you to try out to see if you can circumvent that whole cycle of pests coming in, breeding, reproducing and reinfesting your garden. So worth a shot. And then, lastly, you will get earlier spring harvests from the crops that you have overwintered, as opposed to starting fresh with new seedlings in the springtime. So if you plant that kale in August and it has time to mature into October and just be dormant in the garden over the winter once the daylight hours start to expand in the spring and the temperature starts to go back up, that plant has had the whole winter to develop its root system and establish itself, and so that new growth is going to come on much sooner, much more robust than a little bitty seedling that you put in the ground in the beginning of spring. So if you are impatient to get a spring crop, then a fall garden can fill in that gap for you. 

Now it is not all easy to do a fall garden. There are some challenges that I want to mention here. Summer sowing and summer transplanting can be trickier than spring sowing and transplanting. Now I will go into way more depth with this in a future episode that’s coming out in a week or two. But to kind of sum it up today, because the temperatures are so warm, the soil is drying out much more quickly than it does in the spring and there are also not those spring rainfalls that can help to keep your seeds wet while they’re germinating. Because if a seed starts to germinate and the seedling is just cracking out of the seed coat and then it dries out completely, it’ll kill it and there’s no chance of recovery and you’ll have to replant. So the dry soil and the hot sun and the warm temperatures can all combine to make it difficult to germinate seeds, especially cold weather crops like lettuce that doesn’t want to germinate in soil temperatures over about 75 degrees. It can, just it can make it tricky. So for me personally I prefer to sow seeds indoors and transplant them out, just like I do in spring, honestly, because I can control the environment so much more easily and conveniently than I can when I direct sowing the garden. But it can be done direct sowing in the garden. You just have to keep a few little things in mind which we’re going to get into. 

Another challenge is that there can be harsh or weather in winter, obviously, especially if you live in a colder zone where we’re talking rain, snow, freezing temperatures, maybe all three combined. Where I have lived in South Carolina and Southern California, I didn’t really have to worry about this. It got cold, but not too terrible and not for too long, certainly not feet of snow like the Northeast or the Midwest gets. But up here in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m living now and where I’m from, it rains all winter long, much to the stereotypes you’ll hear everywhere, yes, it does rain that long. So it has its own challenges. Those winter rains can wash away your seeds, it can cause erosion if you’re not mulching. 

Definitely some challenges there. There are some, of course, with everything. Some preventative measures you can take, such as using row covers or low tunnels, but just something to keep in mind that you’ll have a different type of weather to contend with. And speaking of row covers and low tunnels, if you want to overwinter in a very cold climate, say a growing zone where you get snow on the ground for months on end, you will need to have some sort of structure like that low tunnel or a cold frame or even a greenhouse if you wanna go all out to keep your plants somewhat protected from direct contact with the snow or the continual freezes that you’ll get throughout the winter. So, again, something else to keep in mind does not make it impossible, just a challenge that you’ll need to think about before you get started. 

For newer gardeners, it can be discouraging to not see much growth over the winter, where it’s like someone has hit the pause button on your garden, which essentially is what it is, because it’s all in dormancy, and that can be discouraging and hard to stick to. So that’s a challenge of a different sort of where you’re not going to get that beautiful burst into growth the way you do it for a spring garden once summer hits, and that can just be something to keep in mind. If this is your first time, don’t expect to see the abundance of spring right away. And then, lastly, this isn’t so much a challenge as just another aspect to a fall garden. If you’re feeling totally burnt out on your summer season and you just wanna break, then that might be a reason to skip the fall garden this year If you were busting your butt all summer keeping on top of weeds, dealing with pests, being overrun with harvest, then maybe you need a little break and you’re okay with shopping from, maybe, a winter farmer’s market or a winter CSA to support your local farmers rather than growing it yourself this winter, and that’s totally cool too. So, whatever you decide, there are many, many falls in the future. If this is not the one for you, if these challenges are more than you can deal with this year, no big deal. Just plan ahead for spring and get going when that season rolls around. 

Last point I wanna make is that the overall benefit of a fall garden is there. It can help keep the soil covered and active over the winter. It keeps your garden growing. It kind of keeps the ball rolling. If you have thought about cover cropping, that’s another way to use your space for a fall garden. Even if it’s not producing the typical harvest that you’re gonna eat, a cover crop is still something that is an overall benefit to your garden because it kind of prepares your soil for next spring. And I’m not gonna dig into cover cropping a ton right now, but it’s just something else to think of If you are maybe that person who does wanna break before spring. This can be a very hands-off way to keep something growing in your garden, to put in a cover crop in the fall instead of harvestable crops that you plant, you forget about it and then in the spring you deal with it. So that’s another option, too, that is worth throwing out there. 

Okay, moving on from pros and cons of a fall garden, a couple tips that I wanna give you are you will need to plant these crops pretty much right now. July, august, maybe the beginning of September, depending on what zone you’re in, are really the prime times for planting out your fall garden, and that can mean that you need to plant around your summer crops if you have an established garden so if you’re raised beds or your containers or whatever you’re growing in is already packed full of producing crops, then you’re gonna have to get a little bit creative. And what I like to do if I don’t have a whole lot of room but I wanna put in new seedlings are I’ll think about what crops that I’m growing, whether flowers or veggies. What do I need to take out soon that I can put seeds or seedlings around so that they can start to germinate or just get on a little bit of growth before I take out that summer crop. So, for an example, think about your tomatoes. If your tomatoes are still producing well and you’re not ready to take them out which in August I would hope not Hopefully they’re still producing well for you what you can do is cut off the stems not the stems, sorry. Cut off the leaves of the bottom portion of the stem, like I would say the bottom foot or so, if you haven’t already, because those leaves by now are probably turning yellow, maybe drying off a little bit, and the plant is not using them because the tomato is a vine and it’s continually growing up. Those bottom leaves are not contributing to the overall health or productivity of the tomato plant. So you can chop them off without worrying about harming your plants at all, and then at the base of the plant I would spread out an inch or two of compost to kind of refresh the soil a little bit you don’t even need to dig it in and then sprinkle the seeds of whatever that fall crop is that you want to grow I really like to do peas, because they will be able to grow up. The same trellis that I’ve got the tomato on. It can get a little tricky to disentangle the tomato vines before your peas get too big. So just bear that in mind. But if you’re super-duper, crunch for space and you love both those crops equally, that can be a great way to interplant tomatoes and peas. 

Another example is if you have, say, cucumbers or a pepper plant, you could always put in a kale seedling or a broccoli seedling or spinach seeds, or seedlings for that matter. And by the time the cucumbers are ready to come out, when they’re done for the season, you just cut the stem off at the soil level. Don’t try to pull it out, because then you’ll disturb the roots of everything. If you cut the cucumber off at the soil, it’s going to make room for the kale or the spinach whatever that you planted to then grow in and fill up that space that the cucumber had previously been in. This is also known as relay planting, where you kind of stagger the first planting with the second planting and hopefully it makes sense describing it this way but you are just kind of overlapping your two crops to make the most of your space, so that there isn’t that feeling of well great, I’ve got all my cauliflower seedlings and my kale seedlings, but I have nowhere to put it. It can get a little bit tight for the moment, but it is a good way to create room, basically so that you’re not missing that planting opportunity or the timing for your fall crops. 

Of course, maybe you’ve got the perfect setup of hey, I’m just going to build myself a new bed or expand my growing room and you can put in a fresh bed full of your fall crops and you don’t even have to worry about sharing space or the relay planting. If that’s the case, go for it. Pack that thing full. I would even say, put a couple of PVC hoops over it where you just get, say, a 10 foot length of the plastic PVC pipes. Curve it in a horseshoe shape over the bed and stick the ends into the ground, and then you can drape a plastic sheet over it. And there you go, you’ve got your low tunnel right there. That’s going to keep the temperature just marginally warmer than the outside temperature during the winter, but, more importantly, it’ll keep the rain and the snow off of your plants. And granted, that’s the 15 second explanation of how to build a low tunnel. There are a ton of resources with a lot more information, some of which I can link those in the show notes for you, but it’s just an example of a simple way to get started and take the intimidation out of starting your fall garden and when you’re thinking of, well, how the heck am I going to protect it from this crappy winter weather that we have? Okay, that was a long explanation. I hope you get a lot out of that. 

Before we end this episode, I want to just kind of get you thinking of some of the things that you can plant Now. Of course, I’ve mentioned several already, but basically think of the same thing as your cool spring crops such as brassicas, which are also known as coal crops, c-o-l-e Plants like cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, anything belonging to that cabbage family. Those ones will all over winter, if you choose the right variety, and then almost all varieties will ripen in time for a fall harvest as well. Some crops just or, excuse me, some varieties over winter better than others. So that’s just one thing. As you’re flipping through the seed catalogs, look and see if it’s labeled as a storage type of whatever it is, whether it’s a squash or a cabbage or beets and those will most likely perform better for you. Snap peas, snow peas and shelling peas will all do well in the fall. Your harvest won’t be as robust as the spring, but you will still get a harvest. I am definitely planting peas out this year because I didn’t get any this spring, and the key here is just to choose a quick maturing variety. 

You can also plant green onions that will over winter if you are in, I would say, zone seven or above, and if not, they might winter kill If the temperatures get too low. This one you might want to just experiment with and see. You can plant garlic, but that one’s a little bit trickier because come spring time and early summer you need to keep the bed that the garlic is in pretty dry so that it can dry out for harvesting. So if you know you’re going to put a spring crop in that bed, just keep that in mind and maybe try to tuck your garlic over into a different corner where you can stop watering it in the spring time without killing whatever is planted near it. Root crops do really well in the fall, some of which you can overwinter, such as carrots. There are a ton of varieties that you can overwinter Radish. You can definitely get several fall crops in, because those mature in about a month, sometimes even less, beets do really well. 

And then, moving on to greens like spinach, arugula, lettuce, mizuna, all of those types of greens, you can overwinter all of them, as long as they’re under some sort of cover, like a low tunnel or even a row cover, because once the snow hits the leaves and it will, it’ll freeze them and turn them to mush, so they do need some sort of protection but temperature wise, they won’t die. Other greens like kale kale is a I think I mentioned that with the brassicas but kale will overwinter very easily and it can even get snowed on directly and it’ll look dead because the leaves turn this dark, mushy green color. And then, as soon as the snow melts and the temperatures warm up just a little bit, the kale will come back and it’s fully edible and it’s actually a little bit sweeter. I think I even mentioned this in a previous episode that kale is known for becoming sweeter once it has gone through a frost, because the plant converts some of its energy stores into sugar and so it sweetens up the whole leaf. 

For herbs you can do fall plantings of cilantro, chives, parsley, mint. Some won’t survive all the way through the winter without some sort of protective cover, but you can get a fall harvest, and I’ll throw lemon, balm and borage on there as well. Borage will self-sew very, very readily in the fall and you can expect to see that germinate again come the springtime. Borage is one of those that, once you plant it, you probably never have to plant it again because it self-sews so well. 

As for flowers, these are known as hearty annuals or cool flowers, depending on what name you see describing it, and some of those include calendula, marigold, nasturtium. Those ones will bloom up to a frost. They may or may not make it through the winter again, depending on where you live. Even with cover, they might not. Again, it’s a good one to experiment with and see just how far you can push them if you really want to keep them going. They will not bloom very well throughout the winter. In fact they might not bloom at all because of that shorter day length. But what you can do is try to get them to a mature size in the fall, provide some protective cover and so that way you get blooms that much earlier in the spring, and this will definitely work with some flowers such as bachelor’s buttons, delphinium, black eyed susan cone flower and nigella. These ones are all very well known for making it through the winter with protection and then bursting into growth as soon as the day length gets longer in the springtime and the temperatures warm up. 

There’s an amazing book called Cool Flowers, very well known in the flower farming world, for that book has all the information you would need for which flowers you can start in the fall, when to start them, how to get them through the winter. These are very well done book by a well known flower farmer, so I will link that in the show notes. It’s on my bookshelf. I reference it all the time. All right, so with that in mind, with these ideas there should be, if you’re interested in planting a full garden, there should be at least a couple that will make it through in your area, maybe even without any sort of winter protection, like the kale, if you don’t want to bother with row covers or cold frame or anything like that this winter. So start thinking about that. 

If you are going to find seedlings, it could get a little tricky. Some areas I’ve lived in didn’t have anything available for a fall garden. You couldn’t find a kale seedling no matter where you looked. However, where I’m at now, I know that they carry. The nurseries tend to carry seedlings for the fall, so it just it really depends on where you live what you’re going to find. Of course, you can get seeds all through the year, and so you’ll need to kind of work out your timing of when to start them, which is where I want to help you with a downloadable guide that I’ll have linked in the show notes, with a more or less a spreadsheet where you can fill in your first frost date, so that first fall frost or snow that you can expect to get, typically in October, november timeframe, and how to work backwards so that you can start or sow your seeds in time that they will mature, your plants will mature enough to be able to get them through the winter or enjoy a fall harvest. So check out the show notes for that. It’s a PDF that you can print out. Fill out with whatever it is you’re going to grow, and I’ll have some listed on there as a reference already done for you, so that you can kind of make out your calendar for when you are going to start your seeds or have your seedlings ready to go out in the garden by All right time to take a breath. 

That was a ton of information. I hope it was helpful. My fall garden I just pulled out all my seeds. I’ve got a stack, probably three inches tall, of seed packets than I am going to use to get my fall garden going and I will be taking you guys along the journey. Next week we are going to be talking about more fall gardening tips to get you going and help you be as successful as possible. Specifically, we are talking about seed starting tips, more than what I mentioned on before the timing, how to plan ahead for when you need to start stuff. So tune in next week I will be here helping you get going with your fall garden. Bye!

Okay, moving on from pros and cons of a fall garden, a couple tips that I wanna give you are

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