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Extending Your Vegetable Garden into the Fall
It is the middle of harvest time for many of your summer crops, but instead of starting to wind down for the year, it is the perfect time to plan your fall garden crop rotations.
In this article, we try to simplify the process of extending your garden harvest into four easy steps:
1. Protect your crops from the cold to extend your harvest.
2. Pot smaller crops like herbs and bring them into your home.
3. Rotate your crops and grow fall plants.
4. Make your own fall garden planner.
The payoff: Keep harvesting deep into winter.
Why Grow a Fall Garden?
Reason 1: It’s easier to grow crops in the fall.
When you grow a new rotation of annual crops in the fall/winter, you will avoid many summer garden problems, such as pests, watering, bolting, etc.
Although the days get shorter in the fall, temperatures tend to be more consistent, and insect pests hibernate or slow down.
Reason 2: Many crops taste sweeter in the fall.
Picking root crops in the winter is great because root plants convert starches to sugars to warm up the plant and keep it alive during cooler temperatures. This makes for sweeter harvests.
Carrots, parsnips, beets, and winter radishes will all be much sweeter and less woody if picked in the winter and early spring months.
In the summer, however, brassicas, lettuces, and spinach flower and become bitter (as they put their energy into producing seeds.) Growing leafy greens in fall will ensure they produce a healthy abundance of sweet and tender leaves.
1. Protect Your Crops from the Cold
Use Cloches or Cold frame
Using cloches or cold frames (like the one pictured at the top of this blog) are great ways to extend your harvest in the fall and start your harvest early in the spring. These are simply boxes or containers put on top of your crops to keep them a few degrees warmer than the outdoor temperatures.
The Milk Jug Cloche
Alea Milham of the blog, Premeditated Leftovers uses old milk jugs, blender pitchers, and many different items to serve as cloches for her fall and spring gardens.
Alea Milham, author of “Prep Ahead Meals from Scratch” and founder of Premeditated Leftovers
“My favorite item to upcycle and use as a cloche is 1-gallon vinegar jugs. Like milk jugs and plastic juice bottles, they have a lid, so I don’t have to make one. However, unlike milk and juice containers, the lid on a vinegar jug is attached, so I don’t have to worry about storing the lid when I’m not using it. Instead, I pop the lid open during the day and snap it closed in the evening.
I use vinegar for cleaning and laundry, so I accumulate them throughout the year. Then, I cut off the bottom of the jug to use them as a cloche. This makes it easy to stack them on top of each other when not in use.”
You will likely find beautiful garden cloches like the ones pictured above in European antique stores or Colonial Williamsburg.
DIY Cold frames
Master Gardener and garden blogger Jeanne Grunnert recommends an easy garden installation: adding windows to existing raised beds.
2. Pot Smaller Crops Like Herbs and Bring Them into Your Home
Finally, bringing in beloved warm-weather herbs such as lemongrass and rosemary and crops like peppers or tomatoes that may still bear fruit indoors is also an acceptable way of extending your harvest. So don’t discount doing that.
Here are a few examples of plants that we have brought into our homes during the colder months:
- Bay Laurel
- Shishito Peppers
When all else fails, you can always grow your microgreen sprouts no matter what the weather is like outdoors.
Here’s a link to a mini-course on starting your sprouts which comes with a sprouting kit shipped to your home!
3. Rotate your Crops and Grow Fall Plants
Author and research farmer John Jeavons’ book, “How to Grow More Vegetables,” tells us that we can categorize our annual crops into three sections:
- Heavy feeders (our star players that use up a lot of minerals in the soil such as tomatoes, squashes, and brassicas like cabbages and cauliflowers)
- Heavy-givers (nitrogen-giving legumes such as peas and beans)
- Light-feeders (leafy greens that do not need so much fertilization to grow, such as carrots, parsnips, beets, and other root crops except for potatoes)
If you grew many tomatoes in the summer in a particular bed, it would be best to follow that with planting light feeders instead of brassicas in the fall.
The key to planning a fall garden is picking hardy vegetable varieties and using calendar math to count back from expected frost dates. The table below lists good candidates for a fall garden.
Planning a Fall Garden
Make your own Planting Calendar.
There are several Planting Calendars available from gardening companies and seed stores. But you can easily create your own by following the steps below.
Get your own Planting Calendar for free when you sign up for our Monthly Garden Planning Session.
We live in zone 7 here in northern Virginia, and our first frost date is October 15, so our start dates for a few fall crops look like this:
1. Select the variety of cool-weather crops you’d like to grow.
2. Find out:
a. What your crop’s frost-tolerant temperature is. In the example above, the average lettuce is hardy down to 28F or -2C. Some varieties can tolerate lower temperatures.
b. What its minimum germination temperature is.”
You can search for this date on weather.com or weatherpark.com by plugging in your zip code and pulling up your monthly average temperatures. Remember, we are working with averages here.
3. Once you have found the frost-tolerant date of your crop (December 31, like lettuces in Zone 7), work backward by subtracting the number of days to harvest from that date.
In our example, that would be December 31, minus 50 days is November 1. (Plug in “50 days before December 31” on Google.)
The result: November 1 is now your possible “last day for planting” date.
Using First Frost Dates
You can also use “First Frost Dates” to determine the days you have left to plant a fall crop.
“First Frost” is the average date it will snow or form frost in your area.
According to Gardening Etc., “A frost forms when the air temperature falls below 32°F (0°C). This type of frost is unlikely to affect the ground your plants grow in, only the parts of the plant that are above ground.”
Using “First Frost Dates” gives you a more conservative timeline that is safe for growing a fall garden. But if you want to extend your vegetable garden into the fall, use the frost-tolerant dates above.
And if you need step-by-step help planning your planting calendar, come to our Monthly Garden Planning Session!
Bonus Tip: Start Your Fall Garden Early
One of the keys to growing for the fall is ensuring the plants are big enough before the days get too short. One trick would be for you to start root crops very early in the summer (June) and then grow them in the full shade before transplanting them in the early fall.
Here are some examples of root crops that are sweeter in the winter and great to plant before the fall:
If time is running out for you, choose the crops that have shorter “Days to Harvest.”
Leafy Greens are also great fall plants edible. Here are a few more that you can grow aside from the lettuce we mentioned above:
- Bok Choy
- Brussel Sprouts
- Cilantro (cool-weather herb)
- Parsley (cool-weather herb)
Biennials & Perennials
The fall is also a great time to start your biennial and perennial plantings. Biennial crops (2 years life cycle) like onions/leeks, garlic, and swiss chard only flower in the second year and are hardy enough to survive frost.
Planting them in the fall will give them a head-start for the following year’s crop and allow them to establish a healthy root system.
Here’s a list of cool-weather Biennials:
- Swiss Chard
Transplanting berry bushes and other perennial vegetables or herbs is an excellent thing to do in autumn because it gives these plants extra time to get acclimatized, with the possibility of getting a good harvest the next year.
We’ve written about the Best Perennials to Plant in Your Vegetable Garden.
If you want some concrete action items on extending your vegetable garden into the fall, here are a few:
- Make a list of all the crops you can grow in your garden this fall.
- Plan to extend their harvest even more by providing your plants some insulation from winter temperatures.
- Read about how to do this on the Gardening for all Four Seasons blog.
- Attend the next Monthly Garden Planning Session
Share this post with other growers!