Farm Your Yard: Planning the Fall Garden

Jul 18, 2017

Carrots, lettuce and beans are all possible fall garden crops. Carrie Hargrove has words of inspiration to get you planting in the heat of summer.
Credit Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

It’s the middle of summer and the garden is bumping. It’s hot and I am busy trying to keep everything watered and fighting off the inevitable disease and fungus problems that plague all tomatoes grown in our humid climate.

Between one thing and another out there, I am in my garden every day, just keeping up.  One thing that I have been doing a lot of lately is harvesting vegetables. My tomatoes are just now ripening, I have been swimming in a sea of cucumbers for a few weeks already, my beet harvest has been steady, and sweet red peppers are just around the corner.

A recent big haul from the garden was my garlic harvest. I haven’t purchased garlic from the grocery store in six years, because I grow more garlic every year in my garden than my husband and I can eat in a year. I plant garlic every year around Halloween, and then it is ready to harvest right around the fourth of July. The biggest bulbs that I harvest in the summer are held back to plant in the fall and the process repeats. Because I just freed up a sizeable chunk of real estate in my garden after my garlic harvest, I am ready to add one more task on my never ending garden to do list: planting my fall vegetables.

Okay, first a pep talk. It is hot, this I know. But it is fleeting. We don’t live in Florida, and in five months everyone is going to be complaining about the cold. So put on a hat, fill up a water bottle, and go outside and enjoy it while summer lasts! Now that I’ve got you convinced to leave the AC, lets talk about a broader gardening principal. There are several keys to gardening. One of these basic tenants is that timing is everything. Sometimes that timing doesn’t work perfectly with our comforts, like right now you might not want to go out and plant beets. But you know what? In October you will be thanking yourself that you did.

In this context, the timing that we are referring to is the maturity rate of different vegetables. If you want to eat garden grown salads in the fall, you better head on out to your garden with some seed packets in the next few weeks. If it takes beets three months to grow from a seed to a full sized beet, and you want to eat beets in October, then you should plant those seeds now. There are some complexities to this, of course. Cool weather loving plants grow slower in the summer heat, so you have to take that into account, and the shortening daylength can get you into trouble if you wait too long to plant your fall garden, but if you follow my advice, you will have a lovely fall garden that will make your neighbors envious.

The first step to a lovely fall garden is so fundamental that it can be overlooked: you have to have open space in your garden in the middle of the summer. That means that you can’t necessarily plant your whole garden in summer veggies like squash, peppers, and tomatoes, if you want to garden to keep producing vegetables late into the fall. In my garden, this is where the garlic comes in. My garden has no available space until July, when I harvest my garlic. And since I grow so much garlic, about 25% of my garden is opened up for another round of planting after that harvest.  It is prefect timing: once I have dealt with getting the garlic out of the way and adding more amendments to the soil, I have plenty of time to plant almost anything I want to eat for fall in that space. So, step one: plant garlic or another vegetable that will be out of your garden by July, so that you have space to plant your fall vegetables.

Now you have space in your garden, so what do you plant? Well, you could take this a couple of different ways. On the one hand, you can do a second planting of the faster growing summer veggies, like summer squash, cucumbers and bush beans.  All of these plants are sensitive to frost, so you want to plant them far enough in advance of the anticipated first frost so that you actually get the squash or the cucumbers or the green beans. In our area, the first frost date is projected to be on October 15 every year, but last year it happened in November, and a few years ago, we had a very early frost in late September.  So, the first frost date is really anybody’s guess, but if you plant squash, cucumbers, or beans now, you will surely get lots of those veggies before the plants die from frost.

Another route you can take is to plant frost tolerant vegetables like beets, cabbage, collard greens, kale, and Swiss chard this month. These will grow deep into the fall, until it gets really, really cold. You could also wait a couple more weeks, and in early August plant your second planting of lettuce and radishes. Or, you can wait even longer, and in early September plant spinach. Spinach is extremely cold hardy, so if you plant it in September and it doesn’t get big enough to harvest, let it stay in the garden until the spring, when it will be the first vegetable you harvest next year.  As you can tell, there are lots of options in planting a fall garden; it is almost like spring all over again.

When I go through this in my garden, I think about the things that I know I can grow at this time of year, and that I would want to eat in a few months. This year, my fall garden will be planted with: cabbage, spinach, carrots, beets, and green beans. I already have the carrots and the cabbage planted. This week I will plant the beets and the beans, and in September I will plant the spinach. These plants are planted at vastly different times because they all grow at different speeds, and deal with the stress of the summer heat in different ways. All of this I know from trial and error, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

After you have planted your fall garden, the next key is to water it! Water the newly planted areas of your garden every day, I find that I have been doing it twice a day on really hot days. That seems like a no brainer, but watering every day for a few weeks actually takes a will power of steel, so keep at it! You will find that the plants will start life off pretty slow in the stress of summer, but eventually they will take off. Once the plants geminate and are tall enough, mulch the ground around them to help retain the soil moisture and keep their roots cool, and then go out and visit them every day to keep up with their progress.

I have been out in my garden every day watering my cabbage and carrots, and convincing them that life in the garden right now is wonderful, and so far, so good. They are looking green and upright and happy. So far, my fall dinners are looking optimistic. And that is one of the many things that I like about gardening; there is always something to look forward to.

From one gardener to another, there is nothing like spending a summer’s evening planting vegetables for the fall. So, with that, I wish you happy gardening!