When I asked the members of my free Facebook group, the Beginner’s Garden Shortcut, what questions they had about their fall vegetable garden, I received more feedback than almost any other topic. Clearly, many beginning gardeners are interested in fall gardening. But they recognize it’s not as straightforward as the spring or summer garden.
For the beginner, fall gardening isn’t as simple to get started. But, it is generally easier than the summer garden. With fewer pests and weeds, we get to enjoy gardening in cooler days and eat crops that don’t grow well in the heat of the summer.
Because getting started with planting the fall vegetable garden takes a bit of understanding of this unique garden season, Stacey Murphey of Grow Your Own Vegetables tackles some of the most common fall gardening questions I hear. Click below to hear our conversation or continue reading.
Which Fall Vegetables are Cold-Hardy?
The hardiness of the vegetables in your fall vegetable garden depends heavily on your climate. First, you need to understand the differences between your garden zone and your growing season. But here are some general guidelines.
Brassicas — such as kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage — might withstand the winter and even begin growing again in the spring. But, they will bolt quickly in the spring. For this reason, you want to harvest those crops that form heads before the cold of winter sets in.
Kale may will tolerate the winter and live even though it — thus giving you harvest as long as it survives — won’t continue growing in the depths of winter. The same is true for cold-hardy greens like spinach and arugula.
Some romaine lettuces can sustain a cold snap, but they don’t tolerate sustained cold.
Root vegetables like carrots and beets can remain in the ground until you’re ready to harvest (depending on your climate). Though they may slow growth as the day length shortens, you can use the ground as a way to store these until ready to harvest. Many years I have harvested my carrots in February.
Though I have given you examples here, remember that much of this does depend on your climate. And you may have different experiences from year to year as winters differ. My advice is to experiment and see how different plants respond to your winters, and you can learn how to adjust your fall garden for next season based on your observations.
What Vegetables Can We Plant in the Fall for a Spring Harvest?
Your general climate and the severity of a particular winter determine which vegetables survive it. If you have a temperate winter, your plants may just slow down and pick back up in the spring. This is true both for garden zones with frosts and without them.
Garlic is a plant that you plant in the fall for a summer harvest, regardless of where you live. (Get started on growing your own garlic here.)
Other vegetables and herbs that you can try planting in the fall for a spring harvest include leeks, carrots, spinach, rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme, oregano, and mint. These herbs will typically come back in the spring if they’ve been well established.
How to Factor in Crop Rotation with Our Fall Vegetable Garden?
For the home gardener, crop rotation isn’t as much of a concern as long as you are continuing to add organic matter to your soil to enrich it. Add compost between plantings. If you have time, plant a quick summer cover crop like buckwheat between your summer and fall plantings.
It is good to plant a different crop where one crop has been for several reasons:
Disease. If a particular crop struggled with a disease, it’s best not to plant that same crop in a fall planting in the same place. Some diseases overwinter in plant debris in the soil.
Insects. For the same reason, if a particular crop battled a specific pest, avoid planting that same crop in the same area. For example, avoid planting zucchini where you battled squash bugs earlier in the season.
But, in the absence of those issues, I typically don’t worry too much about crop rotation in the same garden year.
Companion Planting of Summer and Fall Crops
Many summer plants grow large in a vertical manner — like tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, okra, and corn. But they don’t take up a lot of soil space at the base. This gives you a perfect opportunity to plant seeds of cool-weather crops under these plants. The shade of the summer plants will keep your soil cooler and limit evaporation as you start your fall crops.
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What is the Best Way to Use Row Covers for Season Extension?
There are simple products that you can purchase that you can drop over your plants to protect them from a frost and offer a few degrees of warmth in the shoulder seasons. You could even try growing food indoors. You can also create the same cylinder with a couple of stakes and some cellophane around to protect the plant.
Floating row covers like this one can be made with old hula hoops cut up with a cover over and held down by rocks. I use cut-down rebar stakes and PVC pipe to create a hoop tunnel.
Floating row covers do allow light and water, and they provide that extra bit of protection. But they can’t protect plants from the harsh winter. In this case, many people layer plastic on top to insulate their fall and winter crops even further. Read more about how Becky at the Seasonal Homestead does that here.
Why and How Do We Plant Cover Crops for the Fall and Winter?
If you’re not growing vegetables through the winter, you can plant cover crops over your entire garden. With most winter cover crops, plant about 30 days before your first frost so that it can grow about 6″ tall. You can even plant it under other crops like kale as long as you don’t plant it over root crops like garlic.
The cover crops help retain the soil structure and keep the soil microbes happy. In the spring, it can be chopped into the soil to add nutrients. Crimson clover, hairy vetch, and winter rye are winter hardy cover crops. When used together, the legumes add nitrogen to the soil and the rye helps to add other nutrients to your soil.
Before planting cover crops, research whether they will be winter-killed in your region. If you do not till your garden, you will want to decide how to cut them down in the spring.
Peas are another common cover crop to add nitrogen, but they are winter-killed so they will die over the winter and you won’t have to worry about cutting them down.
Personally, I leave many of my summer crops like peas, beans, and okra in the ground to help with erosion control and give beneficial pests a haven over the winter. Read more about why I don’t clean up my garden in the fall here.
Common Questions for the Fall Garden
The fall vegetable garden can be the most rewarding time to garden, and the harvest is that much sweeter when it’s cold and brown outside. If you have any other suggestions for fall gardeners, please leave them in the comments below!
Or if you have questions we didn’t cover, submit them below. My hope is that every gardener — beginners and seasoned gardeners alike — can enjoy the benefits fall gardening can provide.
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