Fall is a time for endings, the time when the natural world winds down in preparation for a long winter’s rest. But fall doesn’t have to mean the end of your vegetable garden — if you choose your plants carefully and use a few savvy gardener”s tricks.
Old Crops Get a New Start
Your fall garden can include any healthy warm weather crops from your summer garden that are still producing well — tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and corn, for example.
If you start new plants in midsummer and use quick-maturing varieties, you may be able to squeeze in a second planting of these heat-lovers.
Fall is also an excellent time to reseed or transplant cool weather crops such as lettuce, spinach, peas, and plants in the cabbage family, because they will grow better and taste sweeter in the shorter, sunny days and cool nights. You won’t have problems with finicky plants bolting to seed because of the heat.
Extend Your Gardening Season
In the cold winter areas a first frost is often followed by several weeks of nice weather, so it makes sense to try to extend the gardening season. Using a cold frame, plastic tunnel, or floating row cover will allow you to push the cold weather crops’ season much farther toward winter.
Root crops such as beets, carrots, and parsnips can be left in well-mulched ground after the tops die back, to be harvested all winter. Like other cool weather crops, they taste sweeter later in the year.
In the warm weather areas, fall is a great time to grow the heat-sensitive crops that summer would burn to a crisp, and to rejuvenate or replant some of the flagging heat-lovers for a second harvest as well. In warmer climates, delicious crops such as Vidalia onions — which love short days — are grown in fall and winter.
Timing is Everything
Timing is everything in planting a fall garden. Make use of the plant hardiness zone maps that are available through many agricultural and government agencies — they will tell you approximately when to expect the first frost in fall, as well as the last one in spring.
Count the days backwards from the fall frost date to the present day to see how much time you have left, and then choose fast-growing varieties of plants that will have ample time to mature for harvest. The real cold weather champs such as kale, Brussel sprouts, spinach, and leeks will actually take quite a bit of cold before they give up on you — and you can always cover the more tender plants.
Keep in mind that plants tend to grow much more slowly in the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall. So it’s a good idea to add a couple of weeks to the estimated time to maturity. If you”re starting plants from seed rather than from transplants, you’ll also need to add extra time for that. And be sure to build in an additional two weeks for heat-loving crops like tomatoes, which need to mature before the weather cools too much.