Fall Gardening: Making the Most of the Growing Season

September 8, 2020

It’s September! Here in the the northern hemisphere that means basically it’s autumn. The Fall Equinox is just 2 weeks away (September 22nd), days are noticeably shortening and all the growing things are all starting to lose their luster. It’s past time to be thinking about Fall Gardening.

What is fall gardening? In some climates, it is probably a meaningless term. However, in any location where you enjoy distinct seasons, fall gardening is one way to squeeze the most out of the growing season. As the main season is winding down, and the summer stars like tomatoes and peppers are burning out, it’s time for cold hardy and short-growing season vegetables to make a comeback!

To be clear, this post does not address winter squash or other vegetables with a long growing season that are being harvested in the fall. The focus here is on vegetables that get a new life in the fall.

Who’s staging a comeback?

If you’ve done any gardening, you’re probably familiar with cool season crops. These are the vegetables that don’t make foolish demands like “Don’t plant until after the last frost.” None of that nonsense. It’s the as-soon-as-you-can-work-the-ground vegetable. Brassicas, like Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, and Kale plus greens such as lettuce and chard are the stars of this category. They are naturals for fall gardening.

Other vegetables that can produce well in the fall are root vegetables that grow quickly are also a good fit. Beets, carrots and radishes are a few vegetables to consider.

Then there are others that don’t exactly fit. For example, I’ve planted some more green beans because they are relatively quick to produce. There are also vegetables that do best if planted in the fall to harvest the following summer like garlic and maybe leeks or shallots.

The bottom line is to know when the average first frost and freeze dates are in your area. For example, in my part of Iowa the frost date is somewhere in the first week of October and the freeze date is around October 20th. Most of the cool season plants and root vegetables listed above can deal with frost but if you were hoping to say, get a few more green beans, the frost date is likely your deadline.

The light

It is not just temperatures, you are contending with in the fall. You are also contending with less light. Greens are such highly recommended plants for fall (and even winter!!) gardening because they can thrive with less sunlight. They don’t need the extra energy required to produce a big fleshy root or head of broccoli.

Gray Treefrog on Kale

Ideally, I’d be writing this in July when fall gardening preparations should be in full swing. I’m in zone 5, so late July or early August is a good time to plant a second crop of beets and carrots. Early to mid-August is also a good time to put out fall starts such as broccoli, kale etc…, so those need to be started inside by early July at the latest.

Obviously each zone is going to be a little different. In a more southern zone, it may be too hot for many of these plants in August and your frost/freeze dates may not be until December!

Cloches to Cold Frames

There are various tactics you can employ to compensate for the cold that can creep up in fall…or if you are running behind. Not that I know anything about that. ahem.

If you have a small gardening or are only tackling a few plants, cloches can be a life saver. They can help with transitioning starts to the outdoors if you don’t have time to harden them off. They can also be popped out at a moment’s notice if an unexpected freeze pops up.

Milk Jug cloches for the win!

For a larger garden, hoops work great in extending the season. I intend to make sure a few of my raised beds are set up with a hoop structure for just this function. If you are unfamiliar with a hoop house or this smaller more portable cousin, think of row covers on a frame over the plants and the cover is a heavy duty plastic. It basically creates a more affordable greenhouse.

A cold frame takes it another step further by not only providing protection from cold, but by also being arranged to capture the most sunlight. This can extend your season a LOT!

Finally, to compensate for less light, take that in to account when choosing where to plant. Plant root vegetables and plants like broccoli where they will soak up the most sun. Kale, lettuce etc… will tolerate less sunny locations.

My Fall Plans

I actually have very little personal experience with fall gardening. Before I moved to Keeper’s Croft, my garden space was very shady and my yields even in the best part of the season were pretty dismal. My motivation to plant more in the fall, and have more disappointment, was pretty small.

So as a beginner to fall gardening I am sticking with the simplest and most basic this year – greens. I scrambled to start some kale and chard inside and hustled them out the door to the garden, planting them in late August. I’ll also plant a couple of containers of lettuce greens soon. Finally, I’ll plant garlic in late October for harvest next summer.

The green beans, mentioned above, are experimental and were planted as seed in early August. I also planted more carrots and beets. I am prepared for failure with these because I was pretty late and we are in drought mode here. That’s what gardening is all about, trying things and failing and loving every minute of it!

Have you gardened in the fall before? What are some of your favorite things to grow and tricks for helping them thrive?

Book Recommendation

I love books and reading, so I can’t resist including a book recommendation with each post. The book will, in some way, correspond to the post.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Buying the book below from amazon will earn me a commission.  

Nikki Jabbour is one of my favorite garden writers and her book The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener has a wealth of knowledge. Nikki gardens in Canada, no less, and is still able to grow food in the winter time. Her books are also so lovely and a joy to flip through. If you want to extend your gardening season, this is a really good reference!

If you want to know more about me and Keeper’s Croft, check out the ABOUT page.

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