Some years the thought of a fall garden makes me want collapse in an exhausted heap. It’s hard to think about planting more when you’re overwhelmed and discouraged with the busyness or failures of the season.
Other years I approach my fall garden with anticipation and excitement akin to a spring garden.
I never know which each season will bring, but one thing I have learned over the years is a fall garden can produce astounding results with much less effort.
More results with less effort? Yes! Why? The warm soil helps seeds germinate, sprout, and grow quickly. The major pests have completed their life cycle and cease to pose a problem (I’m looking at you, squash vine borer.) Assuming you have a typical year, the fall rains do your watering for you. And the best part? Harvesting in the cool, crisp autumn is much more enjoyable than the sweat-drenched summer harvests.
In my particular climate, where our hot summers seem to stretch well into September, growing a successful fall garden can be a tricky thing. But I have found crops that consistently give me great yields and set me up for the winter.
In this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, I dive deeper into the benefits of a fall garden and my top five crops to plant especially if you’re a newbie to fall gardening. Click to listen or keep reading for the highlights.
Top 5 Crops for the Beginner’s Fall Garden
Summer Squash or Zucchini
I know it seems like a misnomer, but I have my best squash and zucchini harvest when I plant at the end of July (3 months before my average first frost date). Because the seeds sprout quickly in warm soil, they grow much faster than their spring-planted counterparts. I usually begin harvesting in September and continue well into October.
The biggest plus for squash in the fall garden is I seem to avoid squash bugs and squash vine borers. And, it’s the perfect time to shred up zucchini and squash for zucchini bread, just in time to enjoy warm bread with a cup of coffee on cool fall mornings. Here is my favorite zucchini bread recipe. Summer squash can also be used in place of zucchini — which is especially nice if you have picky kids who don’t like “green” in their bread.
To plant summer squash or zucchini, look on the “days to harvest” on your seed packet, add about three weeks to account for the lessening daylight and the time for harvest. Then count back from your average first fall frost. (Calculate yours here.) I give myself 3 months, though depending on the season, 2 to 2 1/2 months would be plenty.
Make sure you add compost to your planting site, especially if you’ve already utilized that garden space for summer crops that took up those nutrients. Squash and zucchini are heavy feeders.
I know, another summer crop! But like squash, cucumbers do really well in the fall. In fact, one of my best cucumber harvests was a fall one. They germinated quickly and avoided the pests and the diseases that sometimes afflict my summer cukes.
I prefer to plant pickling cucumbers in the fall. That way I can make freezer pickles or even better, I am able to can relish and pickles.
Carrots are the perfect fall crop. They germinate quickly and grow well during the fall months. But above all, carrots harvested in the fall (and winter) are sweeter and most tasty than summer-harvested carrots. We usually harvest in November, and one year I even pulled up carrots in February! (We don’t get much snow here.) Unlike squash and cucumbers, they tolerate a frost and many people say they taste the best after a hard freeze.
As far as timing goes, you have a little more leeway because carrots like cold weather. I try to plant mine just as the fall rains begin to come because constant moisture aids in germination. For me, that’s early September, but I have planted in August and kept the bed watered during dry spells.
Greens (Lettuce, Spinach, Kale, Arugula, Swiss Chard)
Your green crops like cool weather. Definitely wait until the most oppressive of the heat passes and I’d even recommend you wait until the fall rains begin. Kale and Swiss Chard specifically will produce well into the fall, as they don’t mind cold weather. You can plant these by seed directly in the garden or you can purchase transplants (or start seeds indoors).
Garlic is possibly my very favorite crop to grow in my garden. It’s best planted right before or around your first fall frost. A few shoots will come up and then as the cold weather comes in, they will stop growing until late winter. In my area, garlic begins growing again in January, but for those of you in colder climates, it will be later.
You’ll need to purchase seed garlic in late summer, as it sells out quickly I’ve found. I have to purchase mine online. (It’s not recommended that you plant garlic from the grocery store because it’s not certified disease-free and it could carry diseases you don’t want in your garden.) For more information on planting garlic, see this post.
Planting garlic is usually the last thing I do in my garden in the fall, but sometimes it’s easy to forget so mark it on your calendar!
Those are my top 5 recommendations for a fall garden. If you’re like me, you want the fall garden to be simple because you’re ready for a break after all the summer garden work!
More Resources Mentioned in the Podcast Episode:
My favorite source for seed Garlic: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Tip before you buy seed garlic: decide if you will grow hardneck or softneck garlic. Much of this depends on your location. In the Southern US, I grow softneck. This article explains the difference.
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