Extend The Harvest: How To Start A Fall Garden
For some reason, starting a fall garden isn’t as popular as planting a summer garden. The buzz of spring gets gardeners out in the dirt, stuffing seedlings wherever they can find room and over-sowing seeds. But once July rolls around, the enthusiasm to do it again with fall maturing crops is curiously absent.
Learning to start a fall garden isn’t that different from planting a summer garden in the spring, and it’s well worth the effort to have crops maturing later and extending the season.
To start a fall garden, use your frost dates to know when to plant seeds and seedlings. Choose from various vegetables and flowers that will mature before the first frost. Some varieties will continue to produce beyond fall into winter with basic garden maintenance chores if chosen wisely.
With just a few planning pieces, you can enjoy an extended harvest, too.
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Know your frost dates to know when to plant
Frost dates are the approximate dates you can expect a frost to occur at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Frosts will typically kill summer crops that depend on warm weather to survive. However, many other crops can survive and thrive through a frost, such as kale, cabbage, and flowers like calendula.
Find your first expected frost date here on Farmer’s Almanac, These dates are not set in stone, but they can give you a good indication of when to plant.
Once you have the date, you can calculate the following:
- Which varieties will be appropriate for your garden depending on how much time is left in the season
- When to start seeds indoors
- When to sow seeds outdoors
- When to start making space in your existing garden or creating a new planting area
For most flowers and vegetables, the minimum number of growing days before the first frost occurs is 30-100 days. Flowers are longer, requiring 50-100 days to bloom. Vegetables have faster-growing options, such as radishes, which only need one month to mature.
Most fall crops will need to be planted in July or August to have enough time to grow and get established before the weather cools enough to slow down plant growth.
You can find many more details about frost dates, a planting chart, and how to know when it’s just too late to plant a fall garden in this post, New To Fall Gardening? Learn When To Plant One In Your Zone.
If you are planting seeds directly into the garden, use the plant’s days to maturity as a guide for sowing. The number of days to maturity is written on the back of the seed packet, and it shows how long the plant needs to grow before it’s ready to be harvested.
For example, to plant beets in the fall, start with your expected frost date. In my area, that date is October 30th. Beets need about 50 days to reach maturity when planted from seed. So I’ll count backward 50 days from October 30th for a planting date of September 10th.
Starting seeds indoors
Flowers tend to take longer to reach maturity, with a range of more like 50-100 days. To give these plants a head start, it’s a good idea to start seeds indoors, so they have time to grow before going out in the garden. Generally, sow flower seeds about six weeks before you want to plant them out in the garden.
One tip to keep in mind is that the days to maturity apply to seeds and seedlings, even if you started the seedlings indoors. So if you sow a seed in the garden the same day you plant a seedling, they will both be described as taking the same amount of days to maturity.
You’d think the seedling would mature faster than the seed, but the seedling needs time to acclimate to its new environment and establish its roots before resuming growth.
Some vegetables take longer to mature, just like flowers, so they’re best started indoors. Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are three crops that can take around 100 days to mature, so be sure to check the time needed for the crops you want to grow in your fall garden.
Need a primer on how to start seeds indoors? Look no further: Step-By-Step Guide To Starting Seeds Indoors (Plus a sample setup).
Squeeze fall crops in with summer ones, or find a new site
It’s challenging to find room to fit new plantings into a summer garden. Your summer crops might still be producing and you don’t want to pull them out just yet. If you have taller plants like sunflowers or pole beans, they might be casting shade over the bed and preventing sunlight from getting to newly sown seeds.
If either of those scenarios sounds familiar, then check out these tips to find room for fall crops without having to pull out all your summer vegetables and flowers.
Interplant fall crops with summer ones to get the fall garden started
Interplanting means planting two or more crops in the same space. The two crops usually have different dates to maturity, so as one matures earlier and is harvested, the other remains behind to take up the extra room and continue maturing.
This method is particularly helpful when you layer fall plantings into summer crops. Here are some of my favorite ways to interplant:
- Sow peas at the base of tomato plants. As I trim back the lower leaves of the tomato plants, the pea shoots will have room to grow and grab onto the trellis I used for the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes are done producing, I cut the stem of the tomato plant, leaving the rootball in the ground. The pea plants will continue growing to cover the trellis and bear a fall crop of fresh peas.
- I plant cold-tolerant nasturtium seeds at the base of my pepper plants. The nasturtium seeds share irrigation with the pepper plants so they sprout quickly in the warm soil. Once the pepper plant is done for the summer, I cut the stem down to leave room for the nasturtium.
- I start seeds for snapdragons and rudbeckia inside about 8 weeks before I want to plant them in the garden. Because both flowers need 100+ days to bloom, they need a head start indoors, and it gives my summer crops time to finish producing before I remove them to make room for the flower seedlings.
There are many ways to interplant new seedlings and direct-sown crops into established summer vegetable gardens. It might take some trial and error to ensure that both mature plants and newly germinated seeds get enough water and light, but it’s worth working out a method for your garden.
If there’s just no room to squeeze in another round of planting, or if you’re having a long summer and you can’t bear to cut out your still-producing tomatoes, then consider starting a new bed. With a new bed, you can start fresh with all fall crops, and it’s not as hard as you might think.
Make sure to check in with your soil to determine if you need to fertilize. Summer crops can be heavy feeders, so make sure there’s enough nutrition left for your fall crops. To learn more, check out this article, Fertilize Your Garden In The Fall For Next Season’s Success.
Start a new garden bed easily with no-dig methods
Keep the tiller in the shed, and get out your compost, instead. With no-dig (also known as no-till) methods, creating a new bed for your fall garden is quick and easy. And best of all, you can plant in it right away.
A new bed will allow you to plant out all your fall crops without stressing about space. You can situate the bed where it will receive adequate sunlight even in the shorter fall days, and the new seedlings won’t be shaded out by established summer crops like tall tomatoes and sunflowers.
Here’s how to create a no-dig bed that’s ready to plant right away:
- Find a location that will get at least 6 hours of sunlight even in the fall (more on sunlight requirements for fall gardens here)
- Lay flattened cardboard pieces or a thick layer of newspaper over the area you want to use for your garden
- Make sure to overlap any edges of the cardboard to prevent grass from sneaking through
- Thoroughly wet down the cardboard
- Put 6 inches of compost on top of the cardboard and level it out with a rake
- Plant seeds and seedlings directly into the compost. By the time their roots go through the layer of compost, the cardboard will be soft enough for the roots to penetrate, and they’ll continue into the ground below.
Watch the Dutch Farmer create a new bed in his market vegetable garden to see this method in action. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is.
If you still have doubts about whether or not to till in the garden, check out this post, Does A Garden Need To Be Tilled In The Fall? (Probably Not!), for more information and another video example of creating a new garden bed with this method.
Choose the best crops for a fall harvest
Now that you’ve got your growing area set up, it’s time to decide what to plant.
One of the biggest differences between the summer and fall garden is the crops you’re able to grow. While the summer garden is full of heat-loving tomatoes and cucumbers, the fall garden focuses on a different crop type.
The best crops for fall gardens, whether vegetables or flowers, are quick to mature and can tolerate cooler temperatures. Here are some ideas for vegetables and flowers that will do well in the fall garden to get you started. Plus, you can get more tips for fall planting in this article, Too Late For Fall Vegetables And Flowers? Not With These Tips.
Best vegetables for a fall garden
The best vegetables for a fall garden are greens such as lettuce or arugula, root crops like radishes and carrots, and sturdy leaf crops such as kale and bok choy. These vegetables can tolerate the cooler fall temperatures, and many can survive through the winter.
- Swiss chard
I have a whole post dedicated to these fall crops where you can see how long it will take them to mature and some recommended varieties that I personally love to grow. You can read it here for some planning and inspiration: Top Crops To For The Fall Vegetable Garden.
Best flowers for a fall garden
Flowers will thrive in the fall garden if they’re planted with time to mature before the season cools too much. If planted in July or August, many flowers such as strawflowers, rudbeckia, and pansies will bloom right through the fall, with some continuing to bloom through the first light frosts.
- Flowering Kale
- Bachelor Buttons
- Dusty Miller
To see pictures of each of these flowers and get some tips for when to start each variety, check out this post, 11 Fall Flowers That Will Bloom Beyond A Frost (With Pictures), and start planning your fall flower garden.
Continue garden maintenance chores into the fall
Even though the crops you grow in a fall garden are different from summer, the maintenance is largely the same. You still need to keep up on the weeds, ensure your plants are getting enough water, and add mulch on new plantings to carry them into winter.
Water the fall garden regularly, but take the weather into account
Until your area starts to receive regular rainfall in the fall season, you still need to water your garden regularly. During the growing season, the general recommendation is to give one inch of water to the garden each week.
Since the weather starts to change as fall approaches, there may be weeks where you don’t need to water as much because it has rained. You can use a rain gauge to measure the amount of rainfall, or just set out a small container and see how far up the sides the water comes.
If the container you set out has an inch or more of water in it after it rains, then skip irrigating until the soil dries out some.
On the other hand, if the temperatures are cooling but it’s not yet rainy, you should probably continue your regular watering schedule. Even with cool temperatures, plant roots are still growing and they need to be irrigated. In fact, plant roots will continue to grow right up to when the ground freezes.
The best way to know if your garden needs to be watered is by checking the soil. If the surface is dry but the soil is still damp several inches below, then you can wait to water. If you dig a few inches down and the soil is dry, then it’s time to water.
Since it can be confusing to know if your watering schedule should change in the fall, I wrote a post answering the question, Do You Need To Water Your Garden In The Fall? Check it out if you need more information.
Mulch is still useful for a fall garden
During the fall, mulch is essential for insulating the soil, preventing weeds, and avoiding soil erosion from fall rains. A 2-3 inch thick layer of organic mulch such as wood chips, leaves, or grass trimmings will work well.
Your garden soil has been absorbing the summer sun all season. A layer of several inches will hold in heat, which will encourage newly transplanted seedlings to settle in and start growing.
As summer wanes, many weeds will be going to seed. Mulch can help prevent any weed seeds that blow in from getting established in your garden beds. When the seeds land on mulch, they don’t settle in as firmly as if they were in the dirt. The result is lower germination rates due to poor soil contact. If the weed seeds do sprout, they will be easy to pull out from the loose mulch.
Finally, mulch protects bare soil from fall rains. If you have in-ground beds, rain can wash the soil from the beds into the rows, flattening them out. If your garden is on a slope, the effect is more noticeable, as the soil settles from higher spots in the garden to the lower ones.
You can avoid a good part of this erosion with mulch. The mulch will soften the impact of the rain, letting the water percolate down to the soil instead of hitting it directly. In the spring, just pull the mulch aside and plant directly into it. No need to remove it first, and even better, your spring plantings will be mulched right from the start.
This article takes a deeper dive into covering your beds: Cover Your Raised Beds For Winter (Benefits & Method Explained).
You’ve now got all the information you need to start planning your fall garden, so grab those seeds and get going. You’ll be glad you did when you’re harvesting kale and calendulas in October!