Fall Planting Step-by-Step
Extend your garden season into the fall with these tips.
When your prized backyard tomatoes have finished producing, it’s not time to call it a season for your vegetable garden. You can get a second helping of homegrown goodness by planting a fall vegetable garden.
Prep the Soil
Late summer, when the soil is still quite warm, is the perfect time to sow seeds for root crops like carrots, beets and turnips. Begin by cleaning up debris from the previous crop and thoroughly loosening and wetting the bare soil. This practice will stimulate weed seed germination. Take advantage of this knowledge by waiting a week while keeping the soil moist. Allow the weeds to sprout and then kill them with shallow cultivation before seeding the crop. After sowing, keep the soil surface moist until germination, then thin the seedlings to the proper spacing. Once the seeds have sprouted, gradually reduce the frequency of watering while increasing the duration.
While the weather is still hot, you can also start transplants for cool weather crops that prefer to germinate in cooler temperatures than would be found in the garden. Broccoli, cauliflower and other members of the cabbage and kale family would all be favorably started indoors for a fall harvest. Sow one or two seeds per cell in a seed tray and keep them moist by covering with a plastic dome. When they sprout, loosen the dome and place them under bright fluorescent light or muted natural light, gradually acclimatizing the young seedlings to outdoor conditions. Plant seedlings after they grow their second set of “true” leaves (not counting the initial “seed leaves”) and the soil in the garden has cooled a bit.
Direct Sow Seeds
When night temperatures consistently drop to around or below 60 degrees, it is a good time to plant fast-growing cool weather crops by seeding directly into the garden. Spinach, lettuce, radishes and others will perform magnificently if they are sown “in place” when the temperatures are warm in the day and cool at night. Again, take precautions against weeds in advance of planting. Also, keep the soil moist after planting to promote quick germination and steady growth.
Many roots and greens planted early in the fall, given time to establish expansive root systems, will withstand frost and freezing temperatures with minimal or no protection. We regularly continue to reap harvests of early-fall-planted collard greens, spinach, kale, beets and carrots after experiencing multiple hard freezes in our completely exposed garden (zone 7 in Georgia). In areas with cool or short summers and long, cold winters, simple row covers and low plastic tunnels can increase the growing season by weeks while providing protection against extreme cold and wind. Fall is the time for both planting and planning. If season-extending devices are part of your plan, get them in place before you think you will need them and avoid sudden surprises in the weather.
If you are putting your garden to bed for the year, consider giving it a winter blanket. A fall planted cover crop will keep the soil structure open while scavenging nutrients and preventing erosion. The cover crop need not grow through winter. If it is well established before being killed off by freezing weather it will do its job quite well. As an alternative, consider mulch for a similar effect. In this sense, mulch can be straw, shredded leaves, wood chips, or any other bulk dry organic matter. Mulch will protect against erosion and protect beneficial microbes through the winter.
Your fall garden will offer its reward as the temperatures drop, possibly throughout winter. It’s a great feeling to know that your sweaty work in the warm days at the end of summer will warm your soul with the cold weather comfort of fresh veggies from your own backyard.