Fall Gardening: When and How to Plant Vegetables for Autumn and Winter Harvest

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When many beginning gardeners think about fall gardening, they find themselves overwhelmed. After all, they’re tired from the effort put into the summer garden, and the thought of more work seems exhausting.

Plus, they don’t know when or how to get started.

The truth is, fall gardening can be the most rewarding time to grow a vegetable garden. It just takes a bit of know-how to get started.

In this week’s episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, master gardener and garden teacher Stacey Murphy of Grow Your Own Vegetables talks beginners through how to get started planting and growing their fall gardens. Click below to hear our conversation or keep reading.

What Can We Plant in the Garden in the Fall?

The best vegetables for fall gardening are crops that thrive with cooler nighttime temperatures we see in the autumn. Examples include:

  • Leafy greens like kale, collards, and chard that you pull off a stem.
  • Lettuce mixes, bok choi, spinach, and other greens.
  • Root vegetables like carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets. Because their sugars crystallize in the roots as frosts descend, these vegetables will offer a sweeter taste when harvested in the fall than in the summer.
  • Anything else in the brassica family such a broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Peas — specifically snap peas and snow peas. If you have a long enough growing season, these vegetables can make a comeback in the fall as well.

Basically, most vegetables you enjoyed in the spring will also do well in the fall since they thrive in the cooler, more moderate temperatures.

Related: 5 Easy Crops for the Beginner’s Fall Garden

arugula for fall and winter gardening

Which Seeds Should Be Planted in the Fall?

In general, Stacey recommends that beginners transplant as much as possible. The first few weeks of a plant’s life is the trickiest, and many times sowing seeds can prove difficult when the weather remains too hot for these plants.

The only vegetables she direct sows for the fall garden are turnips, radishes, and maybe some salad mix. Even for greens like big heads of lettuce or bok choi she would start indoors to better control the initial growing environment of these plants.

spinach seedlings indoors for a fall garden

Root vegetables like carrots do prefer to be directly sown in the garden, but beets and onions do really well started from seed indoors and then transplanted.

If you don’t want to take the time or effort to start seeds indoors yourself, the key is finding good transplants. Many big-box stores do not carry fall transplants, or their selection is limited for a fall garden. Plan to visit your local nursery this year to see what is available. If you still can’t find the selection you hoped for, plan to start seeds indoors or request transplants for next year.

Which Crops Grow Best as Transplants in the Fall Garden?

Beets and onions are good crops to transplant. Starting beets inside and transplanting leads to a higher germination rate and fewer skips in your garden rows so that you can make the best use of your space. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, and collards are also ideal plants to transplant into your fall garden.

lettuce seedlings planted indoors

How Do We Ensure Good Seed Germination in Fall Gardening?

As mentioned above, starting seeds indoors helps ensure good seed germination. Direct sowing in the heat of the summer can be difficult on the seeds due to both the heat and the rapid evaporation when seedlings need moisture the most.

The optimal temperature for most seeds to germinate is around 70* Fahrenheit. The soil temperature when you need to plant fall crops is usually higher than this.

One trick that farmers use is to plant their seeds twice as deep because the soil temperature is cooler. If it’s too hot, you can find ways to cool your soil like using a flat row cover with a sprinkling of cool water in the day. You could also lay down mulch to cool the soil. Just pull it away when you see the plants sprouting.

row covers for carrot seeds to help germination

When Do We Plant Fall Crops?

When to plant fall crops is one of the trickiest elements of fall gardening. But once you understand a few basic rules, you’ll find it pretty simple.

In the fall, the days are getting shorter and the temperatures are getting colder. Through the fall, you are approaching the Persephone period, the period when your area receives fewer than ten hours of sunlight per day. As you approach this period, your plants will start to slow down, and when you reach it, their growth will stop.

This means when you calculate planting dates you have to do more than take the “days to maturity” for each crop and count backward from the first average frost date. To make up for the slower growth that accompanies the shorter daylight, add two weeks in your calculations to ensure that your harvest comes in.

broccoli in a fall garden

For example, perhaps you want to plant radishes in your fall garden. Radishes typically take four weeks to mature. If your first average frost date is Oct 1, you would go back one month and then add two weeks to calculate an approximate planting date of August 15th.

Of course, you also have to take into account the harvest period. In the above example, since radishes tolerate frosts and even a light freeze, you could safely plant on August 15th. But if you’re planting a crop that doesn’t tolerate a frost or freeze (such as a fall crop of zucchini), you need to build in time for harvest.

Want More Tips on Fall Gardening?

Check out these past posts and podcast episodes:
How to Plant a Fall Garden
5 Easy Crops for the Beginner’s Fall Garden
How to Plant Garlic

How to Grow Food Indoors in the Fall and Winter

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  1. I live in NC and have a pretty long growing season. When would you suggest I begin my seedlings indoors for fall transplanting? Could I start now or is too late? I direct sowed this year but after reading your post I’m worried they may not germinate?

    1. I’d say it’s too late to start cabbage and broccoli indoors. You could still start lettuce, greens, and spinach. You could direct sow those or get them on a solid footing in a more controlled environment. Or you could do both like I like to do. Since I don’t know your exact average first frost date, double check me on these, but this is where I’d start. Of course, garlic is started in the fall around your average first frost.

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