Don’t put your seed packets away just because the crisp fall air has arrived! Fall is a great time to garden! Here’s everything you need to know about how, when and what to plant to have a beautiful and productive fall garden!
Here in Idaho, there is already a tinge of fall in the air! Even though daily temps are still in the 90’s, the overnight temps have begun dipping into the 50’s. The cool morning air is beginning to turn crisp. The days have started getting shorter, ending with golden sunsets each night. And the familiar sweet smoky smell of ditches being burned back has returned.
This is my absolute favorite time of year! Fall is finally coming! Which means, that it’s time to get planting… again!
So buckle up, folks! Today we are talking all about how to grow a totally ridiculously amazing fall garden! We will be covering quite a bit of info, guaranteed to make you the kings and queens of your fall gardens! Let’s jump in so you can get to planting all that goodness!
Advantages of the Fall Garden:
If you are like me, you are probably still harvesting tons of summer food from your garden. With produce running out your ears, it may be hard to even think about planting more! But, if you enjoy a long fall season like we do, a fall garden will benefit you in many ways!
- Better tasting greens!
Most likely, all of your lettuce turned bitter and bolted by mid-summer. Lettuces have a hard time tolerating heat, which makes fall a perfect time to plant a new crop! You will also find that lettuces and greens planted in the fall garden are much sweeter than those planted in the Spring/Summer garden!
- Extra food for pollinators:
Pollinators, like bees, are busy getting ready for winter right now. They are making sure they have enough food stores to survive the colder months. With fewer food options available to them, they are also desperately searching for pollen! You can help the bees by letting some of your summer harvest go to bloom alongside your new fall veggies! You can also plant blooming perennials or annuals (like mums) in the fall to give the bees some extra blossoms!
- Warmer Soil:
Warm soil = strong roots! Plants need warm soil to be able to fully derive nutrient from the soil for strong leaves, flowers and fruits. Luckily for the fall gardener, your soil has been getting nice and warm all summer! The soil will maintain heat very well, even when overnight temps start to drop. The warm soil temps will give your plant roots a head start before the frost hits. This is why late summer and fall is also a great time to plant perennial flowers and plants!
- Less watering, less weeds and fewer pests!
Less work! Music to every gardener’s ears! Gardening in the fall is not only enjoyable because of the cooler temps, but it’s also a bit easier! The cooler temps mean that you can water less often. Many areas also experience more rain in the fall – giving you a break from your watering duties! Several weeds have also come to the end of their warm-season growing cycles, which means less weeding for you! And, best of all, many pests have also headed out for the season!
Fall Gardening Made Easy:
Since my summer veggies are still overflowing in my kitchen, waiting to be processed into yummy foods for winter, I try to keep fall planting to a minimum. To make things even easier, I make sure that I grow fall garden plants that I can sow directly in the ground, rather than having to start them indoors in advance. This is called direct-seeding.
Direct-seeding for fall crops works best with “cold crop” plants that have a quick growth cycle. These include greens, radishes, green onions and peas. Since these crops reach maturity quickly, you are able to squeeze in an entire extra growing season each fall! It’s important to know your average frost dates and start your seeds in time. We’ll talk a bit more about that next.
While you can certainly grow things broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts in the fall, they will grow best if you start them from seed indoors and then transplant them outside. It’s ideal to give them about a 6-8 week head start before planting them out. For me, starting plants from seed in the middle of summer simply isn’t going to happen! Call me lazy, but at least I know my limits! ?
Frost Dates and Days to Maturity:
For a successful fall garden, you are going to need two key pieces of information: your frost date and the days to maturity for each crop you plant. Let’s talk about how these two factors can set your fall garden up for success!
Days to Maturity:
A common date listed on seed packets is “Days to Maturity”. This date tells you how many days it takes for a seed to germinate and grow to maturity. Basically, how many days it will take from the day you plant until the day you can start harvesting.
For fall gardening, it’s extremely important to know how long it takes a plant to mature. You will want to look for plants that have a fast growth cycle so that you can harvest them before they are killed by the frost and/or the frozen soil. Ideally, I look for plants that take 60 days or less to mature for my fall crops. However, each region has different weather and therefore you may have more or less time for your fall crops.
Which brings us to frost dates…
For a gardener, knowing your average frost date is the equivalent of a teenager knowing what the absolutely latest time is that they can sneak back in without being caught. The average frost date is the predicted date of your first and last hard frost. These dates are based on an average of the last 30 years and calculated by the National Centers for Environmental Education.
So, how do you find out what the frost date is for your area? Like most things in life nowadays, we consult the internet! My favorite is the frost calculator from The Farmer’s Almanac. You can select your state and then find your city or type in your zip code. It will show you the predicted date for your first fall frost and your last Spring frost. Keep in mind that these dates are simply averages to give you an idea of when to prepare for frost. It’s important that you watch your local weather closely each day to monitor frosts.
Now that you know your frost dates, it’s important to note that you don’t have to stop gardening simply because the frost has come. Some plants, like kale, will continue to grow despite some frost. And, with the right protection, you can actually extend your growing season substantially!
There are many ways to protect your plants from frost. The easiest is to simply throw some old bed sheets or sheets of 3 – 5 mil greenhouse plastic over your garden beds at night. Professional-grade frost blankets which come in varying weights can also be used. This will help protect crops from light frosts and can extend your growing season until the ground freezes.
However, if you are looking for a more permanent solution, here are several to consider:
- High Tunnels: High tunnels (aka hoop houses) are above ground rounded greenhouse structures that use stretched greenhouse plastic to create the walls. High tunnels are a great option if you have enough room. Even with the protection of a high tunnel, you may still need to use frost blankets to protect your plants from hard frosts.
- Row Tunnels: For the smaller scale gardener, row tunnels might be a better option. They are basically mini high tunnels that are built directly over a garden bed. These tunnels offer an affordable option that is easy to construct, making them a popular choice with home gardeners.
- Cold frames: Cold frames offer a more permanent solution while giving plants a safe and protected place to winter. Depending how large you build them, you can either grow your plants directly in the cold frame or use it like a mini-greenhouse to keep potted plants protected over the winter. We even use ours to harden off our seedlings each Spring! Cold frames can easily be built with repurposed material. We built our cold frame from old windows and salvaged wood.
How to Calculate your Fall Garden Planting Dates:
Now that you know your frost date, it’s time to calculate exactly when and what to plant. For each crop that you want to grow, look at its days to maturity and then count backwards from your frost date. This will tell you when your last chance to plant is (assuming you aren’t using season extenders).
For instance, my first frost is expected on October 3. I want to plant radishes which take about 30 days to mature. So, counting 30 days back from October 3rd means that I should plant them no later than September 4th.
It’s always advisable give yourself some extra time by planting a couple of weeks before your calculated planting date, if possible. Again, if you are using season extenders, you will usually be able to continue growing well beyond your first frost date!
22 Vegetables to Grow in your Fall Garden:
Now for the fun part: picking out and planting your fall garden crops! Below is a chart of popular fall crops along with the average days to maturity for each one. Be sure to check each pack of seeds for that particular variety’s days to maturity. Different varieties of the same plant can vary in their days to maturity, so look for the varieties with the shortest amount of time.