It’s been a rough summer for many of us, too hot or too dry or too many rabbits, and the list goes on. So, it is truly a wondrous thing that you get an extra little growing season as summer turns to autumn. Fall brings another chance to sow and grow cool-season veggies, from blemish-free arugula to sweet little carrots.
But which crops to choose? And how does it all fit together in a way you can handle during the often unpleasantly hot days of late summer? To help you explore the possibilities for your greatest autumn garden ever, here is our broad stroke guide to making the most of the last third of your growing season.
A Four-Phase Fall Planting Strategy
Start by determining your first freeze date, which is often about three weeks after your first frost date. Frost means the end for warm-season crops like tomatoes and basil, but it benefits cool-season plants like bok choy and kohlrabi by triggering the production of sugars in the above-ground plant parts.
There are four planting windows for your autumn garden and it’s important to select the right crops for each period:
First Phase: 14 to 12 weeks before your first hard freeze
In the first phase, there is just enough time to squeeze in a late sowing of fast-maturing salad cucumbers, summer squash, or snap beans. If you are graced with mild weather, plant parsnips or beets in well-worked beds, and make a small sowing of an interesting chard like pale green 'Lyon'.
Indoors or in a sheltered place outdoors, start seeds of brassicas including broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and fast-maturing varieties of cauliflower. Autumn is a great season to try new varieties of these and other cabbage cousins, such as super-tender 'Yellow Cabbage Collards' or beautiful 'Rainbow Candy Crush' kale. Other excellent vegetables to start indoors or in a nursery bed include bulb fennel and parsley.
Second Phase: 11 to 10 weeks before your first hard freeze
Set out cabbage family crops as they reach transplanting size, and cover them with tulle (wedding net) to keep them safe from insects. Shop local garden centers for seedlings if you did not grow your own.
Sow a fast-maturing variety of carrot in a fertile bed, and cover it with an old blanket or shade cover to keep the soil moist between waterings. As the weather allows, direct sow cilantro, romaine, bibb, and butterhead lettuces, and radishes galore. Start with large-rooted daikon and Chinese radishes, which need more growing time compared to little salad radishes.
This is also the best time to plant winter cover crops such as crimson clover, hairy vetch, winter peas, and cold-hardy grains.
Third Phase: 9 to 8 weeks before your first hard freeze
It’s finally time to choose from a long list of greens: arugula, turnip, spinach, and Asian greens including bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and tatsoi. Also plant more lettuce and salad radishes if you have the space and inclination.
Fourth Phase: 7 to 6 weeks before your first hard freeze
Sow small winter crops of spinach, mache, and cold-hardy lettuce in a bed that can be outfitted with a secure cover. Seedlings that grow to 3 inches (8cm) across before cold weather stops their growth will wait through winter under plastic or glass, and then start growing first thing in spring.
Last but not least, plant garlic and shallots around the time of your first hard freeze. The cloves will slowly grow roots, with green tips emerging before winter’s end.
Using the Garden Planner to Plan Your Fall Garden
Our Garden Planner simplifies your fall garden planning by enabling you to see at a glance what can be planted during any specific month. Click on Show More at the top right of the plant selector to open the filters then choose as many filters as you wish – for instance plant type, crop rotation family, easy to grow or frost tolerant.
Now scroll down to Planting Times and select the month you wish to sow indoors (color-coded green) or sow or plant outdoors (blue) from the drop-down menus. Only plants that meet your requirements will then be shown in the plant selector, making it easy for you to choose your favorites.
We also have loads of guides on growing autumn vegetables that might interest you. Get ready to create your most bountiful garden ever!