Vegetable gardens in the summer can be frustrating, especially in the South. The heat and humidity make for great growing conditions for molds, funguses, viruses and bacterial diseases. For vegetables, this is not the case. The cooler days of fall promise a respite from the heat and humidity and better growing conditions for many of our favorite vegetables. Whether you live in the Deep South, Middle America, or the northern tier of states, the fall garden can be your most rewarding vegetable producer. Now is the time to start getting the garden ready for fall planting.
As always, the single most important factor for having a bountiful vegetable garden is planting on New Ground. If you are starting with ground that has not had vegetables planted on it in the last 3 years or more, you are almost certain to have excellent success. For the rest of us, we will make do with what we have.
Fall vegetable garden or winter garden?
If you’re gardening in USDA zone 4 or lower, move along; nothing to see here. In zones 6-11, however, you can (and should) have a second vegetable garden in the fall or winter. See table below for suggested planting dates.
|Vegetable||Zones 5-6||Zone 7||Zone 8||Zone 9||Zone 10|
|Potato, Irish||—||Early Aug.||February||Jan.-Feb.||Jan.-Feb.|
Before planting anything, cover the ground with organic mulch such as hay, straw, pine straw, or finely chopped woody debris. Hay and straw (our favorites) should be spread out 10-12 inches deep; less deep for the woody debris. The sooner you can spread the mulch, the better. We want it to settle down and begin decomposing. The mulch will reduce water loss to the air, smother weeds that might be germinating, and increase soil fertility as it decomposes and incorporates into the soil.
What Vegetable to Plant
Many of the best vegetables for fall planting are cole crops (aka brassicas; aka crucifers), members of the Brassicaceae family. These include cabbage, collards, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kohlrabi. Believe it or not, all of these are members of the very same species, Brassica oleracea. (Isn’t it amazing what gardeners have accomplished through the ages merely by selecting which seeds to plant and which to discard?) Other members of the Brassica family (but different species) include radishes, mustard greens, arugula and turnips, all of which do best in our fall and winter gardens. Carrots, parsnips, scorzenera, salsify, onions, garlic, leeks, lettuce, radicchio, chicory, corn salad, beets, spinach, salad burnet and parsley pretty much round out the list of the most common veggies for fall planting.
Get your starts on
Many of the cole crops (e.g., cabbage, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kohlrabi) can be purchased as small individual plants that can be set out in the garden as soon as you bring them home. If you are so inclined, you can start your plants from seed, but this should be done 3-5 weeks before it’s time to plant them out in the garden, and around 12-14 weeks before your average first fall frost date. Setting out individual little plants is the best way to grow most of the brassicas, but we recommend starting kale from seed. Most of the other fall and winter veggies are grown from seed planted in the garden.
Get down and dirty
To set out store-bought or self-started plantlets, water them thoroughly and plant them on a cloudy day. We want to disturb the mulch as little as possible. Use your hands to make a small opening through the mulch, then a trowel to dig a hole into the soil beneath, then insert the seeds. To plant seeds, use your hands and a side-to-side motion with a board to create a six-inch wide linear gap in the mulch, then use the edge of the board to create a narrow furrow in the soil, then deposit the seeds in the furrow and cover. Different seeds and plants will have different recommended spacing and depth, so pay attention to the instructions on the seed packets and nursery pots. Water thoroughly.
Vegetable plants need about an inch of water per week. If there isn’t much rain, you will need to water the garden yourself. The fall garden is usually not as susceptible as the spring garden to insect and disease damage, so you probably will not have to worry about bugs and fungus. You still may have to pull out little weeds that spring up where the mulch is thin or has been moved aside.
The cooler days of fall will have you spending more time in the garden, fussing over your veggies. And that’s why we garden!