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Planning And Planting The Fall Garden

July and August are the glory days of the summer vegetable garden. Your tomato vines are probably waist-high and heavy with fruit. The green beans need daily picking, and your zucchini and summer squash are going like gangbusters. Then September comes and the garden starts to wane. By October, things are definitely winding down, and the first fall frost shuts down the entire production for the year.

If you find yourself feeling melancholy as fall approaches, take heart. With a little planning, you can have home-grown vegetables well into late fall and early winter. Of course, you can’t grow heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers—they’re gone with the first frost. But, you can grow more sturdy crops like spinach, kale, carrots, turnips, and broccoli. Read on to learn everything you need to know for a fall garden.

What Are The Benefits Of Growing A Fall Garden?

  • More predictable weather patterns. I live and garden on the high plains of Colorado, where I do daily battle with Mother Nature. We regularly get snow in May, hail in June, and drenching floods in July and August. Fall is the calmest season in my region, making it a great time to grow a few extra crops.
  • Less work. You’ll hardly break a sweat growing a fall crop because you’ve already done most of the work. You improved the soil in the spring, and you’ve stayed on top of weeds through the summer, so they’re mostly spent. Bugs are usually less troublesome in the fall as well.
  • Better crops. Many crops, including lettuce, spinach, and broccoli, bolt and turn bitter in hot weather but thrive under the cool, dry conditions of fall. Kale and Swiss chard taste better when they’ve been nipped by frost.

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When Should I Plant?

When you plant your crops depends on two things: the particular plants you choose and your climate. I plant most of my fall crops between July 25 and August 5. This includes beets, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, and endive. You can even plant a second crop of green beans and summer squash. These crops grow quickly but can tolerate only mild frosts. Mid-to-late August, I plant hardier kohlrabi, leaf lettuce, mustard, and turnips. Finally, I plant the most frost-tolerant plants—leaf lettuce, mustard, and spinach through mid-September.

But for a more scientific answer, read the seed packet to learn the approximate number of days from planting until harvest. Then, check with your county extension service to find out the estimated date for the first hard frost. If you’re planting a crop that can’t tolerate frost, count back from the expected frost date to how many days you’ll need to harvest the crop. That’s your very last day to plant.

How Do I Plant A Fall Garden?

Growing a fall garden is much the same as planting your spring garden. First, remove any plant debris from the garden area, unless you’re doing succession plantings, in which case, you’ll plant your fall seeds among already growing crops. Remove all weeds and dig in a bit of all-purpose plant fertilizer. Protogrow is a great option for this.

Plant seeds slightly deeper than you would in the spring. In the spring, seeds are often slow to germinate because the soil is still cold. The soil near the surface is warmest. In late summer, though, the soil is plenty warm, but it may be too dry for germination. By planting seeds ¼ to ½ inch deeper, you’ll ensure that they get the moisture they need to soften the seed coat and sprout.

Keeping seeds moist is your biggest challenge early on. Soaker hoses are a good investment because they deliver water directly to the ground. Plan on watering as much as every day during very dry weather. Once the seeds germinate, they won’t need quite as much watering. Mulching is another good strategy for keeping seeds moist. Cover the area with a thin layer of cut grass or damp newspaper. Check the soil daily, though, and remove the mulch as soon as seedlings emerge.

Vegetable transplants are hard to find in the nursery come late summer, but if you don’t want to bother with direct seeding, try starting seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before planting time. Fill a large seed tray with starter mix or soil and plant your seeds. Mist the area with a squirt bottle filled with water and cover the tray with plastic wrap. Set the tray in a warm area and keep it moist. Once the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic wrap and set the tray in a sunny window. Plant the young plants in your garden when they stand three to four inches high.

How Do I Care For The Fall Garden?

Once the seedlings emerge, you’ll continue to weed and manage diseases and insect pests. I find that I have fewer pests in my fall garden, but in some regions, the reverse might be true. I don’t like to use a lot of pesticides in my garden, so I handpick most of the pests I find. I’ve also eliminated a few crops that are especially troubled by pests. Flea beetles, for example, attach my broccoli no matter what time of the year I grow it, so I finally gave it up in favor of other crops.

As late fall approaches, think about frost protection to extend the season. Some crops, like green beans and summer squash, really can’t be saved. However, leafy greens and root veggies will continue growing until late fall if you provide some protection. I like heavy floating row covers, which is an agricultural fabric that’s laid directly over the crops. Water, air, and sunlight permeate it, but it keeps plants warm and also keeps bugs out. You can also cover crops with burlap or straw if a frost is imminent. Pull these mulches back though within a day or two or you may suffocate the plants.

Come Thanksgiving, it’s time to pull the plug on my fall vegetable garden. I’ve harvested the last turnip and cabbage, and heavy snows are on their way. Clean out all the plant debris to reduce the risk of disease running rampant through your garden. Spread a layer of compost on the soil if you like and tuck your garden in for the winter. Come spring, it will be ready to serve you again for another growing season.

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