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Preview: Many gardeners don’t realize the benefits of planting a fall garden. This post will tell you what vegetables you can grow in the fall, how to plan for a fall garden as well as when to start a fall garden. I’ll give you and hint – you will need to start a fall garden as early as June and July.
In recent years, I’ve shifted toward planning and planting a fall garden. Fall gardening is a great way to extend the summer growing season and get a jump-start on the following spring. Some crops can even be grown and harvested up to Thanksgiving and beyond.
But, to be honest, I’ve not always felt this way about a fall garden. In years past, I was always impatiently waiting for spring to arrive.
And then I would hurry to get started on spring with planting cool-season vegetables but then often found myself discouraged with the harvest. Thankfully I figured out the solution, and I no longer struggle with it.
I know it’s hard to think about planting a fall garden when you are harvesting and preserving tomatoes and okra about every day. And then the dog days of summer are just beating you up. Oh and the bugs, who can forget about the bugs!
But for us gardeners, fall gardening can be the beginning of a new season even if you are a beginner! Even though fall gardens are harvested in the autumn and early winter, the planting begins as early as May or June.
Planning For and Planting A Fall Garden
Why Plant A Fall Garden
As I said, many gardeners are ready to take a break after a summer of harvesting and preserving. I get that, and there is no shame in saying “I’m done” or “I need a break.” I said these things for several years, but since I have finally figured some things out, I now look forward to planning fall garden beds. Here’s why.
Here in SE, Tennessee, once spring temperatures arrive, they don’t last long. The temperatures quickly get in the upper 80s to low 90s, and early spring crops seem to struggle and stunt growth or bolt.
Therefore, starting a fall garden in June and July didn’t make sense. I didn’t have the space, and why should I want to grow crops only to have them bolt?
I’ve since done some homework and decided that waiting to plant a fall garden has its benefits.
Benefits of a Fall Garden
1 Less Work
2 Sweeter Tasting Vegetables
The second benefit of fall gardening is the cooler temperatures. Since the temperatures are cooler rather than scorching, fall vegetables are less stressed, and some will be even sweeter when showered with a light frost. Brussel sprouts are a great example.
It took me a while to see it this way. Cole-crops like cabbage and leafy greens prefer cooler temperatures, 70-75°F, not to struggle. The cooler temps allow them to put energy into growing and producing delicious flavors instead of shooting bolts to flower.
Since Tennessee’s spring temperatures warm so quickly, my garden often struggled, and I always worked to prevent bolting. Don’t get me wrong; I still plant crops in early spring for eating fresh, just not for preserving.
3 Save on the Grocery Budget
A third and important reason to grow a fall garden is to maximize savings on the family budget. The cost of rising food prices only continues to grow. So planning and planting a fall vegetable garden helps stretch the dollar even farther.
How to Plan A Fall Garden
When should you start planning for a fall garden? I do it in January and February when planning our year’s garden. First, I list all the seasonal crops I plan to grow, then look in my seed organizer and make a list of the seeds I need to replenish. Lastly, I browse the seed catalogs with paper and pencil in hand.
I’ll mention there are more technical ways of planning a garden online, but I find pencil and paper works best for me. I once tried The Almanac Garden Planner but struggled with it. So I stick with my pencil and paper.
Next, with the paper beside me, I plan my garden layout. Since spring crops can be harvested before summer, I map around these for fall planting.
I separate spring and summer crops on the map to ensure I have space for fall. Doing so allows me to harvest my spring crops and plant fall crops without disturbing the summer crops.
RELATED: Take the guesswork out! Use the easy formula worksheets in The Canning Garden Workbook (printable) to figure out how much to plant, for canning, to feed your family for a full year!
Best Crops to Plant for Fall
This list of fall crops enjoys temperatures of 60°-70°F. These include Cole-crops, leafy greens, and root vegetables. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Mustard Greens
- Snap Peas
- Brussel Sprouts
When to Start Your Fall Garden
How do you know when to plant a fall garden? To decide when to grow, you’ll need to know two things: 1) your area’s first frost date and 2) the days to maturity for what you plan to grow.
To find your first frost date, this site, The National Gardening Association, can tell you this based on your zip code. It will give you two charts; use the one for fall. NOTE: This date is an estimation based on years of history. So it can vary a bit; I always try to plan ten days both ways to be safe.
And then, to figure out how long it takes for each crop to mature for a fall harvest. This post How to Read Seed Packets will provide a step-by-step guide to reading and understanding seed packets. You’ll know when to start planting your garden with seeds based on the days to maturity for each plant or when you need to start seeds indoors.
A reputable seed catalog can provide this information if it’s not found on the seed packet. Next, some fall crops do best being directly sown into healthy soil (carrots, spinach, and peas), but others are better started indoors and transplanted at the appropriate time (cabbage and broccoli).
Calculate The Days To Start Seeds
DON’T WAIT UNTIL FALL – IT’S TOO LATE!
Timing is everything and is based solely on the FIRST fall frost date.
Feel free to use this process; it’s how I do it every year. Remember, I said I am old school and use pencil and paper. I’m sure there are more elaborate ways of calculating online, but I like my routine. So, feel free to steal it and make use of it.
TIP: Fall crops should be planted outside 6 weeks prior to the first frost. So if you are starting them indoors, make sure to include this time in your planting schedule.
- Sticky Notes or paper & tape
Make two stacks with seed packets: 1) Start Indoors and 2) Direct Sow. Then with your calendar in hand, begin with stack one.
Begin with a seed packet, find the days to maturity information + the number of germination days, and make a note of it on the sticky note. Next, find your area’s first frost date on the calendar and then begin counting backward the days.
For example, broccoli’s days to maturity is 90, and germination time is 4-20. Therefore 90+20=110. Next, starting on your first frost date, count backward 110 days.
So, for me…110 days before October 11th is June 14th. But then ADD ANOTHER 14 days; 110+14=124 days. So I know I need to start my broccoli seeds inside 124 days before my frost date of October 11th, which is June 4th.
WHY? The days to maturity are 90 days AFTER it is transplanted outside. Broccoli tolerates only “light” frost; therefore, it needs to be fully matured BEFORE a heavy frost hits.
Starting mid-July, the days begin to get shorter, and we have fewer hours of sunlight. Therefore plants will grow slower. However, the additional days give way to the shorter days and allow time for plants to fully mature.
On the sticky note, write the date you need to get your seed in the soil. Do this for everything in both stacks you plan to grow in your fall garden. The sticky notes are an easy visual for when to plant fall seeds.
Get Soil Ready for Fall Planting
As with any vegetables, fall crops need healthy soil to thrive. So if the summer season has gotten ahead of you, take some time to pull weeds and get rid of them before they go to seed.
If you have old spent plants, these should be removed as well. Things that are still producing, like tomatoes and okra, can be left.
And then, before sowing fall seeds or putting in transplants, feed this soil with rich nutrient compost. For example, a mushroom compost would work well or an aged manure compost. These will help feed fall plants after summer crops have reduced the nutrition in the soil.
It’s also a great time to add slow-acting organic fertilizers. I like using blood meal for adding additional nitrogen and bone meal for root and bloom development. A good worm casting can also increase soil microbes through the fall growing season.
Frost Protection Before Harvest
As I mentioned earlier, frost dates are estimations. Therefore, planning can help lower stress on fall plants. In addition, many vegetables that grow in the fall are frost tolerant to some extent. But it’s still a good idea to plan for protection, especially if a hard frost is expected.
You can make low tunnels using clear plastic or use row covers. Some lightweight blankets will work as well. Just be careful to support them, so their weight doesn’t break stems. (Ask me how I know this).
My favorite is row covers. They can be left on and the plants can still breathe and not get too hot.
Fall Garden Planning & Planting Summary
- Make a list of the vegetables you plan to grow
- Decide the dates of when you need to harvest
- Calculate the number of days, including additional fall growing time of +14 days
- Mark your calendar or put reminders on your phone for these start dates
I hope this has encouraged you to start a fall garden this year. The planning and planting fall crops can sound confusing the first time, but as with anything, it gets easier with practice.
And if you decide to take a break, don’t fret; you can always plant cover crops to feed soil microbes over the fall and winter.
More Fall Garden Tips
- Garden Spiders Are They Harmful?
- 6 Tips to Prepare Vegetable Garden for Winter
- How to Help Feed Pollinators into Late Fall