Time to Plan Your Fall Garden
Summer’s sultry days may find you melting in the garden, but heavenly homegrown tomatoes and scrumptious sweet corn makes every drop of sweat and mosquito bite worth it. While you’re indulging in tasty homegrown treats, late summer means it’s time to plan for fall feasts.
After all, summer’s waning days shouldn’t mean the end of garden-to-table meals. Instead, it’s time to plan and plant the fall vegetable garden to extend your healthy harvests into crisp, cool autumn days…and beyond!
Why Plant a Fall Veggie Garden?
After picking bugs, staking too–tall tomatoes, and dragging hoses out on 98 °F (30°C) days, you might think that growing a fall veggie garden sounds exhausting. But guess what? In many ways, it’s actually easier to grow a fall vegetable garden than summer crops.
Less Watering Needed
While cooler fall temperatures make it more pleasant to spend time in the garden, the reduced heat also means you’ll spend less time watering. As temperatures cool and days shorten, less moisture is lost through evaporation. Add a layer of mulch around your plant’s roots, and you’ll reduce watering needs even more, as the mulch helps keep roots cool and soil moist.
Of course, you’ll still need to water, especially as young plants establish roots, as well as during periods of drought. But dragging hoses through the garden on 60°F (16°C) days isn’t quite as trying as when the thermometer shows nearly triple digits.
Also, consider installing soaker hose or drip irrigation now, while cooler temperatures make garden chores less taxing. Soaker hose and drip irrigation save water by targeting the plants’ roots. Plus, turning on the facet and walking away while the hose or drip line soaks the soil saves time–and your sanity. No tangled hoses to battle for you!
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener
Some fall crops, like leafy greens, tolerate partial shade more readily than the summer stars, such as tomatoes and peppers. If you struggle to grow veggies in summer, you may find greater success with fall crops.
Harbor Fewer Pests
Did you spend the summer battling bugs? Pest control can be frustrating, especially when you want to garden organically. The good news is that fall gardens tend to harbor fewer pests.
The main critters you’ll face are cabbage worms—which are actually caterpillars–which love to snack on veggies in the brassica family. Keep an eye out for cabbage white butterflies, which lay eggs on the veggies.
Check the underside of leaves for eggs or caterpillars. Or place a row cover over your brassicas to protect them from a cabbage worm infestation. The light, porous cover allows sunlight and water to reach the plants—but not pests.
Many Crops Taste Better in Cooler Weather
Cooler temperatures not only reduce watering and pests, but many fall crops taste best when kissed by frost. Some crops, like arugula, taste bitter and bolt when temperatures rise and daylight lengthens, but these same veggies taste sweetly savory during chilly autumn days.
Kale and Brussels sprouts actually taste the sweetest with a frosty coating. Always check the growing information on your seed packets or plant tags to see what temperatures your veggies tolerate.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener
Just like summer crops, fall veggies need the right amount of light, great soil, consistent water, good drainage, and rich nutrients to thrive and produce a bountiful harvest.
Tasty Crops to Grow in Your Fall Veggie Garden
When you consider veggies for cool-season gardens, lettuce might be one of the first crops to pop into your mind. After all, everyone loves a fresh, flavorful homegrown salad, and when you grow your own lettuce, you’ll find an amazing array of varieties with unique colors, textures, and sizes.
From easy-to-grow cut-and-come-again varieties to crisp heading lettuce, homegrown lettuce wins for fresh flavor, compared to the limp, green leaves you’ll find at the grocery store.
In fact, growing your own lettuce gives you the chance to enjoy culinary creations sporting speckled, red, bi-colored, ruffled, oakleaf, and every-shade-of-green leaves.
Whether you want to create delicious low-carb wraps for your favorite fillings, enjoy a classic Caesar salad, or prefer a leaf or two topping a tasty sandwich, homegrown lettuce is one of the easiest fall veggies to add to your garden. (Have you tried grilled lettuce? It’s the latest culinary craze.)
Consider planting classic varieties, like romaine and butterhead, for a good, basic lettuce crop, then add some new, unique varieties for more flavor, color, and texture.
‘Bauer’ lettuce, with its dark green leaves and compact form, grows beautifully in raised beds, containers, windowboxes, or in-ground gardens. This oak-leaf variety tastes delicious harvested young or mature as a full-sized, rosette-shaped head.
For a fabulous variety that adds interest to salads, try ‘Ezpark’ lettuce. The vibrant green, heavily serrated leaves look lovely in the garden—and add texture to your sandwiches and salads.
A vigorous grower with high yields and good bolt resistance, the lettuce tastes delicious harvested as a cut-and-come-again variety or as a mature head. Ezpark offers good resistance to downy mildew and aphids, too.
You’ll also love the combination of classic green lettuce with the deep, red leaves of ‘Marciano’ lettuce. The eye-catching dark burgundy exterior contrasts beautifully with the fresh green interior, making this variety pretty both in the garden and on the plate.
A red butterhead variety, Marciano offers good disease-resistance to downy mildew and lettuce mosaic virus, plus it resists lettuce leaf aphids. Beautiful and easy-to-grow—a perfect combination.
Break Out the Brassicas In Your Fall Veggie Garden
But lettuce isn’t the only veggie that grows well in cool-season gardens. Cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kale…the brassica family tree sports many branches.
What do these nutrient-rich veggies have in common? They all prefer cool weather for the best growth and flavor, with many members enjoying a touch of frost to taste their best.
Whether you adore roasted Brussels sprouts with a balsamic vinegar glaze, snack on cauliflower with your favorite dip, or start your morning with a kale-loaded green smoothie, homegrown brassicas taste delicious and make the perfect addition to the fall veggie garden.
While you’ll find green heading broccoli or standard white cauliflower in your local grocery store, why not try newer, more interesting varieties in your home garden? Some offer unique colors, forms, and flavors, and all taste better harvested fresh from your backyard.
Instead of growing standard green broccoli, add color to your garden and plate with ‘Burgundy’ broccoli. A purple sprouting variety, this eye-catching broccoli produces a small central head, followed by side shoots of uniform tender, flavorful florets. Rich in antioxidants, ‘Burgundy’ broccoli offers a season-long harvest of pretty, tasty, healthy shoots.
If you can’t get enough of purple in your garden or dishes, you’ll love ‘Mulberry’ cauliflower. The vibrant color and sweet, mild flavor adds a unique presentation and tasty, slightly nutty flavor to your charcuterie boards or favorite recipes. The vigorous, upright plant produces purple curds or heads that look lovely in the garden—or on your plate.
Or maybe you prefer multiple harvests from your cauliflower. ‘Multi-Head’ cauliflower develops one main head, like a standard cauliflower variety, but then produces two–to–four side curds for extra treats. Harvest the main curd as soon as it’s ready, which will spur the additional curds to form for future meals.
If stir–fries are a must in your menu planning, you’ll love the convenience of growing your own pak choi—especially a variety that’s known for big yields and lack of bolting.
An All-America Selection, ‘Asian Delight’ pak choi forms small to mid-sized heads with a tasty, tender white rib and dark green, textured leaves. This mini pak choi makes a perfect addition to small gardens or containers.
‘Bopak Organic’ pak choi also works well in containers and small spaces. The tender leaves and crisp, sweet stalks taste great in Asian recipes or eaten raw.
Try using the stalks in place of celery sticks, add the leaves to soups or stews, or grill the head for a smoky flavor. Harvest early for baby pak choi, or let the plant mature to full size.
And don’t forget this spicy green: arugula. Delicious in salads for zesty flavor or topping a homemade pizza, arugula adds a little kick to your favorite meals. For a variety that’s as pretty as it is tasty, try ‘Dragon’s Fire’ arugula. A wild variety with flaming red veins that highlight deeply lobed, dark green leaves, it adds the perfect pop of color—and spice—to your meals.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener
Use pak choi as a “thriller” in fall container combos. Add lettuce and edible pansies, and you’ll enjoy a beautiful, colorful display—that you can eat!
Grow Nature’s Superfood
If there’s one vegetable that needs to belong in your fall garden, it’s kale. Not only is kale a pretty addition to veggie beds and containers, but it’s also a nutritional powerhouse. High in nutrients and low in calories, kale is among the most nutrient-dense foods available.
It’s a brassica, but kale is the over-achiever of the family. Rich in vitamins A, C, K, B6, folate, manganese, calcium, copper, potassium, magnesium, and beta-carotene, kale also packs antioxidants into its leaves. Perfect for soup, salads, or smoothies, you need to add kale to your fall veggie garden planning.
‘Dazzling Blue’ kale adds a pretty pop of color to your veggie garden or fall containers. The blue-green leaves with bold purple midribs look lovely and taste delicious. Plus, this is an extremely cold-hardy variety, perfect for chilly climates.
For a vigorous plant with excellent disease resistance, try ‘Oldenbor’ kale. The only variety resistant to fusarium yellows, it’s also extremely cold tolerant. The dark green, tightly-curled leaves look pretty in veggie beds and produce a bountiful harvest. Pick outer leaves first or harvest the entire plant to use in frittatas, soups, or casseroles.
‘Rainbow Candy Crush’ Kale not only has great eating quality but brings a pop of color to your fall garden! A vibrant hot pink center with bright green edges, ‘Rainbow Candy Crush’ has the best color during cool seasons.
Eat (and Grow) Your Spinach
Popeye may have thought he was encouraging kids to eat spinach to grow big and strong, but what child enjoys mushy nasty-smelling canned spinach? (Honestly, what ADULT enjoys canned spinach?)
Fresh, homegrown spinach, though, is nothing like the mush Popeye downed to save Olive Oyl. Instead, the tender, sweet leaves taste delicious eaten fresh in a salad, baked on pizza, cooked in pasta or omelets, or added to smoothies. Plus, it’s easy to grow in a fall veggie garden.
While supermarket produce shelves stock plenty of green spinach, why not grow a unique, gourmet variety to add a splash of color and flavor to your meals? ‘Red Snapper’ spinach sports dark red stems and red veins on the narrow, highly–serrated, deep-green leaves. This fast-growing variety tastes mild and delicious, both when harvested young for salads or mature for fresh use or cooking.
‘Tundra’ spinach is an excellent, semi-savoy baby leaf variety with high disease resistance. Spinach ‘Oceanside’ is great for fresh salads or stir-fries.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener
Timing is everything, especially when planning a fall garden. Check your expected first frost date in your area—and then count backwards to know when to sow seeds or plant starts.
Look for the “days to maturity” on seed packets or plant tags to know when to start your fall veggie garden to ensure a good harvest before the first freeze.
Beginner Tip for the New Gardener
Consider adding floating row cover or low tunnels to stretch the productivity of your plantations. These help protect crops from the cold and thus extend the harvest season.
Grow Great Root Crops
Lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula… all look lovely grown in raised beds and containers, adding pretty color and texture to the garden. But don’t forget those tasty crops that make magic underground. Carrots and beets prefer cool fall temperatures and taste delicious when grown at home.
While known for their tuberous roots, you can also enjoy the plants’ greens when you harvest the veggies, adding them to smoothies. Some cooks even use carrot leaves to create an unusual pesto, while beet greens make a tasty addition to stir-fries. These are truly “root-to-shoot,” full-use veggies for your Fall Veggie Garden!
For a kaleidoscope of colors, try ‘Gourmet Blend 5 Color’ beet. Perfect for pickling, fresh beet salad, or juicing, these veggies grow well.
For the crisp, crunch of carrots, try growing ‘Rubypak’. A variety with longer roots, healthier tops, and tastier flavor, it’s an ideal variety for new gardeners. ‘Rubypak’ also grows beautifully in small gardens or deep containers, plus it’s more disease-resistant than many other varieties.
Add Cool Season Herbs: They’re More than a Garnish
You might think of parsley as the sad little “tree” that adorned your dinner plate whenever you dined out with Mom and Dad as a kid. Even they didn’t insist that you clean your plate with parsley on it.
But homegrown parsley tastes so much better than the tired sprigs adorning diners’ dishes. From flavoring your favorite recipes to serving as the main ingredient in a riff of traditional basil pesto, parsley makes a great addition to your fall veggie garden.
Not sure which type of parsley you should grow? You’ll love ‘Parsley Kitchen Garden Blend’. With three varieties of parsley—flat, semi-curled, and curled—in one seed packet, you’ll have a pretty, varied harvest for whatever culinary delicacy you’re inspired to create.
If you’re looking for an herb that’s delicious from its leaves to its roots, try Hamburg parsley. The dark green, smooth leaves add flavor to soups, stews, roasts, and salads—but the 10-inch-long white root is also edible.
Parsley root tastes delicious steamed, boiled, puréed, or creamed. Use it to add aroma and flavor to your favorite recipes.
So, while it may feel a tad warm to think about spiced pumpkin lattés and sweater-weather, it’s definitely not too early to start planning and planting your fall veggie garden.
When you’re creating savory dishes with fresh-from-the-garden produce this fall, you’ll realize that your late-summer extra effort was worth it.
Article and photos offered by the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening.