Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fall Gardening

It is September now, time to plant the fall garden in my area. The question is, what to plant. In order to determine that, first you need to realize how a fall garden is different from a spring or summer garden.

1) You plant when it is still hot, but the plant matures and is ready for harvest when it is cold. That means that plants that like to sprout in cold soil, like peas, are ill suited to a fall garden. It also means that plants that are frost intolerant, like tomatoes, are also out.

2) A fall garden is best suited to plants that mature quickly. When you consider “growing season” for your crops, it refers to the time between last freeze and first freeze. Many crops can take almost that entire time to grow, set fruit, and then ripen fruit. So crops that mature in just a few months are better suited to a fall garden. This often means vegetables instead of fruit (realize I am talking botanically speaking, which means if it has seeds, it is fruit).

3) If you have mild winters in your area (as I have in my Zone 7 garden), it works well to consider plants that may survive the winter. In some cases they will produce all winter long. In other cases, they will produce until winter throws too much at them. In still other cases, they will go dormant when it gets too cold, only to revive when the first warm weather of spring hits, giving you an early crop. Just remember that winter weather can be unpredictable, so you can’t necessarily count on that winter garden. But then again, summers can deliver hail and locusts as well…

Here are a few examples of crops to try in your fall garden:

Spinach – Spinach has been the star of my fall garden for many years. So far every time I tried it, it went dormant when the weather got too cold and then exploded into growth in the spring. It handles the cold like a champion. Most importantly, it stores whatever energy it can and grows explosively when spring hits. I often find myself trying to find a way to work spinach into every meal around the time everyone else is considering planting their garden.

Kale – All members of the cabbage family are known for their use of sugar as an antifreeze. Once the first freeze hits, they get a lot sweeter. I am particularly fond of Red Russian kale. It is a thinner, more tender kale that can be eaten in salads. However, during hot weather, it is bitter. It isn’t until the first frost that it becomes delicious. For me, this is ONLY a fall crop. Collards also fall into this category.

Broccoli – I once had a broccoli plant that had a rough summer and didn’t start producing until fall. When winter hit, it was undeterred by the cold and kept producing a head of broccoli once or twice a week until a particularly nasty cold snap around January finished it off.

Swiss Chard – This is another tough plant. It matures quickly, is very frost tolerant, and usually lives through the winter. The downfall of this one is that it comes back pretty anemically in the spring. After the winter, it is gearing up to produce seed. So come spring, pull out all but one of your Swiss chard plants, leaving the one so you have more seed.

Garlic – I have had great luck planting garlic in the fall and letting it grow through the winter. It will be ready for harvest around May or June.

Lettuce – Here is another plant that matures rapidly and is frost tolerant.

Cilantro – Cilantro bolts quickly in the heat, but it matures quickly, making it well suited to a spring or fall garden. Cilantro was another plant that surprisingly made it through the winter, only to resume growth in the spring.

Bok Choy – This is another member of the cabbage family that should be good for a fall garden, being both cold tolerant and fast to mature. I tried it for the first time last year and for some reason the plants got about 5” tall and went straight to seed. Not sure why. I plan to try it again this fall, though.

I have also had some failures in the fall garden. You may notice that a sizeable portion of the list above are greens. Anything that needs time to form fruit, big roots, a head, or some other part that isn’t just leaves may not have time to do so before winter sets in. I tried peas last year. They refused to sprout in warm summer soil, so the seeds took a full month to sprout. When they finally did, there wasn’t enough time to flower and grow pods before winter set in. The same thing happened with carrots and beets. I suspect it would be the case with cabbage as well.

Despite my suggestions, I would strongly recommend you experiment. It really is the best way to find out what works best for you and in your area. Even with mixed results you will extend your harvest through the fall and get to garden that much longer.


  1. We have a lot of luck with most herbs in fall and winter. Even the annual ones usually survive the winters here (near Dallas).

    I'm trying for a fall crop of heirloom cherry tomatoes. If they bear fruit in the advertised 54 days I should have 3-4 weeks of productivity before the first freeze.

  2. I would add parsnips (they can winter-over even here in Zone 5),beets and rutabagas which grow quickly. Carrots can be harvested until the ground freezes, so I usually throw in some seed mid-August here. You might be able to pull some off now. Oh yeah, radishes like it cooler and they grow fast. Wish I had 54 days left before frost!

  3. Anton - good suggestion on the herbs. Basil and lemongrass die at the first frost, but others, especially members of the carrot family (parsley, cilantro, dill, etc.) handle moderate cold.

    With plants like tomatoes, beets, and carrots, you are racing the clock. Often my plants have an odd habit of stalling and doing nothing for months at a time. I haven't figured it out yet. I just picked my spring carrots and beets and all were undersized after months of not growing. Eggplant does it to me every time. In a fall garden, that means no productivity.

  4. Everything stopped growing here when we hit our first 100F day. The tomatoes didn't survive the heat, but the peppers look fine, have flowered and are producing fruits now.

    Next spring I'll start the tomatoes a lot earlier and cover til the chance of frost has passed.