Originally Published on November 3, 2020. Last Updated on August 31, 2022.
Fall is arguably the best season to get into gardening. There’s cooler weather, fewer pests, and less plant watering. But what exactly can you grow? And what else should you know about fall gardening?
In this blog, we’ll review what you need to consider before starting a fall garden and the best vegetables to grow this season.
Getting Started with Your Vegetable Garden
Whenever you get started with a vegetable garden, there are some factors that you need to consider:
Timing is everything, and there are no exceptions when it comes to fall vegetable gardening. While the usual time to start planting veggies for a fall harvest is mid- to late summer, there are crops you can grow in early fall. If you want to be more specific, there’s some information you need to know.
The first thing you need to pinpoint is the first fall frost date, which is determined based on your location. While warm regions like South Florida rarely see frost, northern states certainly do, so it’s important to know your first fall frost date. The Farmer’s Almanac is one of the best resources to find this date. You enter your zip code or city and state, and it’ll give you an estimate of when the first fall frost will occur.
It’s also important to know the days to maturity needed for your specific crop to grow. For example, most varieties of lettuce take about 45-55 days to mature. Let’s say you live in an area like Sacramento, CA. The first fall frost date is around November 26, so you need to count backward from that day to discover when to plant your lettuce. Therefore, you would have to plant your lettuce no later than October 12.
However, plants grow slower during fall since autumn sunlight isn’t as strong as it is during the summer. It’s recommended to add 1-2 weeks to your days to maturity. From the example above, it would be better to plant your lettuce somewhere between September 28-October 5.
Location is another key consideration for growing a vegetable garden. Most veggies grow best in full sunshine for at least six hours a day. However, several fall season crops such as cabbage and radishes can grow in part shade. Pick a spot in your yard where there’s open space without a lot of trees around. You also don’t want to set up your garden in a place that floods easily or receives strong winds that could knock over your plants.
Convenience is critical, too. If possible, find a spot close to your house so you can easily see and check on your garden. You also want to think about your nearest water source. Position your garden near your hose or install water barrels to avoid carrying heavy pales every time you go out to water your plants.
Plot and Container Size
Once you find a spot to plant your veggies, measure your plot of land. Doing this allows you to figure out how many seed packets or plants you’ll need to purchase. If you’re new to gardening, it’s best to start small — even when there’s room to plant more veggies. You don’t want to get overwhelmed or frustrated when dealing with a big garden.
If you grow your veggies in a container garden, the size of the planter matters. Many root crops need a deep container to allow their roots to grow and expand. For example, if you want to grow 10-inch carrots, you need a container that’s at least 10 inches or deeper so the veggies can form properly. If you’re going to plant crops that grow above soil, such as lettuce or broccoli, you can get away with growing them in shallow containers.
No matter where you’re planting vegetables, your crops need healthy soil to grow properly. A loose, well-draining potting soil is an excellent choice for fall gardening. This type of soil is great for most root crops — i.e., radishes, turnips, carrots — because water won’t hang around the roots, eliminating the possibility for rot. Also, loose soil helps these types of vegetables form a nice shape.
Match Your Vegetables with What You Plan to Cook
When choosing vegetables to grow and cook in fall, there are guidelines you should follow to help make your choices easier:
1 — Choose Vegetables You & Your Family Like to Eat
If you’re planting veggies for yourself, you can choose whatever you want. But when there are kids and spouses involved, you need to consider the veggies they like. Also, don’t plant vegetables just because they’re easy to grow. For example, radishes grow extremely fast, but if you and your family don’t like radishes, then who’s going to eat them?
2 — Consider What’s Available at Your Grocery Store
Certain cool-weather vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower require extra care than other veggies. If you’re a beginner or short on time, you might be better off buying them at a grocery store. Instead, plant easy-to-grow crops like lettuce, which usually taste better home-grown anyway!
3 — Pick Vegetables for Preserving
Veggies such as Brussels sprouts and cauliflower freeze well, while others like carrots and beets can be canned. If you’d like to preserve your harvest, you’ll need to plant enough vegetables for both fresh eating and storage. This may take a couple of years to find the right balance. It’s okay if you over-plant. You can always give your extra veggies to friends and family.
Consider Your Local Weather
Before you make a list of vegetables to grow in your garden, you need to know if those veggies grow well in your region and climate.
The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is one of the most helpful tools gardeners can use to select their crops. The USDA classifies plants by the coldest temperature they can withstand. The map divides the USA into 11 separate regions based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. However, this map isn’t perfect. Sunlight, wind conditions, and soil types and structure can all affect a plant’s growth and survival.
Microclimates are another thing to consider. A microclimate is a climate within a small area that differs from the surrounding area. For example, dense surfaces and objects such as boulders, sidewalks, and driveways absorb sunlight during the day and slowly release heat at night, making the ground warmer. If your garden is near these things, you could extend the growing season of your veggies.
Ultimately, an experienced, local gardener is the best resource when it comes to choosing vegetables. Most counties offer extension offices that work with gardening experts to give you valuable information tailored to your area. You can also visit your nearest gardening center and ask your questions to a friendly associate.
Vegetables That Grow Well in Fall
There are plenty of vegetables that thrive in cool climates. Some crops can even tolerate light frost. However, planting for a fall harvest means getting your plants in the ground in August and September. If you live in a warmer climate, though, you can get away with planting crops in early to mid-fall. Here are some veggies you should consider growing in your garden.
Kale is one of the most nutritious greens that also thrive in cooler climates. In fact, kale boasts a frost tolerance of about 15°F. You can also plant many varieties in your garden, including curly kale, red Russian kale, and lacinato kale — aka dinosaur kale. If your kids are reluctant to eat kale, consider making kale chips or throwing it into a smoothie with peanut butter and bananas.
Broccoli prefers cooler weather to form its tight, delicious crowns. However, they’re sensitive to frost. If you live in a colder region, make sure to protect them with a cover. It’s best to sow them directly into the ground during late summer or early September. This allows plenty of time for them to grow properly. You can also use transplants to ease the process.
If you’re looking for an easy veggie to grow this fall, lettuce is one of your best options. It’s a fast-growing green that flourishes in cool weather, whether you use seeds or transplants. Plus, lettuce can survive through winter, as long as you protect it with a row cover.
Carrots are incredibly versatile vegetables. You can toss them in an autumn salad, roast them as a side dish, or throw them in a soup for a chilly day. Carrot seeds are tiny and delicate, so make sure to sow them as evenly as possible. If you want a fall harvest, sow the seeds no later than 10 weeks before the first frost date.
Like broccoli, cauliflower thrives in cool temperatures, but it’s sensitive to frost, so make sure to cover it. There’s a lot of color variety, including white, green, and purple. Also, set your cauliflower seeds or transplants about 18-24 inches apart to allow them to grow correctly.
Brussels sprouts are as hardy as they come. They grow well in cooler climates and can even handle a frost or two. As the sprouts mature, you want to pull off the yellowing lower leaves. Additionally, don’t wait to harvest the whole stalk. Pick the sprouts at their peak maturity.
A fall garden favorite, beets are earthy, sweet, and easy to grow. While deep red is the standard color for beets, there are several colorful varieties such as golden yellow and white. To help speed up the germination process, be sure to pre-soak the seeds.
Radishes are easily one of the fastest-growing crops in your fall garden. Once you sow the seeds, it can take less than a month for radishes to fully mature. There are also numerous varieties of radishes. If all you know are the small red ones, consider giving these veggies another shot and try another type of radish.
A fall vegetable garden takes some research, planning, and effort. But once you get everything set up, it’s a rewarding experience to harvest the fruits — or rather veggies — of your labor. When in doubt, you can always talk with an expert at your local garden center. He or she can offer gardening suggestions tailored to your region’s climate.
What veggies are you most excited about to grow? Let us know in the comments!