Tips to Start an Awesome Fall Garden Right Now

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Summer crops are nearing the finish line, but the growing season’s not over yet. Gardeners, while you’re figuring out what to do with all that zucchini, start planning now for a fall garden so you can save even more money on groceries.

What to plant when?

The trick to planting in the fall is to plan carefully to avoid the disappointing loss of crops to frost. Success comes from choosing plants that will reach maturity before winter hits.

Start by calculating how much growing time is left where you live. Put your ZIP code into The Farmer’s Almanac frost finder, which tells you when, on average, the first and last light frosts occur in your (U.S.) location and how many days the growing season lasts locally.

Find out how long plants will take to mature

Next, look up how many days your chosen plants should be in the ground to reach maturity. Days are cooler and shorter in autumn, so the best crops are ones that need less heat and have shorter growing cycles.

Read seed packages, plant labels and catalog descriptions to find the average number of days to maturity for each crop (and variety) you are considering. Also, check this University of Minnesota Extension fall list that gives days to maturity for many autumn crops.

Get the timing right

  • Calculate your planting dates by counting backward from your local average fall frost date.
  • Now add two weeks to give your crops the best chance of success. (In other words, plant earlier than your research would suggest.) Here’s why: Frost might arrive early this year. Also “many plants grow more slowly as days shorten in fall,” according to Better Homes & Gardens.
  • Local experience matters with gardening. If you are a new gardener, double-check the plants you’ve chosen and planting dates with local experts at a garden store or a county agricultural extension service. Search online for your county’s name and “agricultural extension service” or use this map to track down an extension office near you.

Choose the right variety

Growing requirements vary a great deal among varieties of a vegetable, so select a hybrid that will perform best in fall. For example, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a Maine-based seed retailer, lists broccoli hybrid varieties by days to maturity and heat and cold tolerance, pointing to those best for fall gardens. (Johnny’s has similar planting programs for cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach and lettuce.)

“Varieties grown during an inappropriate time slot may fall short of their potential, resulting in a poor-quality or even unmarketable product,” Johnny’s says.

Plant choices for fall gardens

Many of the plants harvested in spring — leafy greens, onions, radishes and cabbage family vegetables — work well in a fall garden. Here’s a list of typical candidates, although the suitability of these will vary depending on your local conditions:

  • Turnips
  • Broccoli
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Collards
  • Radishes
  • Bush beans
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Swiss chard
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Green onions
  • Radicchio
  • Peas
  • Kohlrabi
  • Garlic (for harvest next July)

In warmer climates, fall gardeners have more choice. Some can plant warmer-weather vegetables like peppers, eggplants, okra, winter squash, cucumbers and potatoes.

How to know where to sow

Your research will tell you which plants can be seeded directly into the soil and which should be started indoors or grown from purchased “starts” (young plants).

“Start seeds of broccoli and cabbage in flats or pots indoors (outdoor soil temps may be too high for good germination), then transplant the seedlings to the garden about four weeks later, when temperatures are cooler and seedlings are large enough to compete against weeds,” Mother Earth News advises.

Prepare to plant

Before planting, clean up the garden, removing dead plants, leaves, stalks and debris that can encourage diseases. Compost healthy material and throw away plants showing signs of disease.

Chose the spots where you’ll plant and prepare them by working in compost and any needed soil amendments or fertilizer. How can you know what your soil needs? Get it tested. This video at Fine Gardening on how to start a garden demonstrates how to test your soil.

Contact your local cooperative extension service to learn how to take a sample and send it for testing. Or buy a soil test kit at a garden center. The soil test tells you the soil’s pH, texture and nutrient levels. Look for one offering recommendations on how to improve the soil based on the test results. HGTV offers guidance on how to amend soil.

Rotate crops to avoid depleting soil nutrients. That means planting a particular vegetable in different parts of the garden each cycle rather than keeping it in the same spot season after season. The University of Wisconsin Extension explains crop rotation here.

Dealing with frost

Keep your eye on local temperature forecasts as the weather cools. If frost is predicted, protect tender plants with:

Whatever you use to cover plants, remove it first thing in the morning to prevent buildup of condensation that could freeze and damage plants. Mother Earth News has tips on extending the growing season.

Some vegetables are said to taste sweeter after a frost. Among them: Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, parsnips, carrots, celery root, beets, turnips, rutabagas and winter leeks, according to Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens blog.

More tips for successful fall harvest

  • Keep a record of what you planted, when and what the results were. With a garden journal, you’ll learn from your efforts and improve the next year.
  • Plan fall gardens around southern exposure, or full sunlight if possible, to capture all the light the season has to offer.
  • Pick fall vegetables as soon as you can and as often as possible. “Frequent cutting stimulates continual new growth,” Mother Earth News says.

What’s your experience with fall gardening? Share your tips and insights on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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