A Fall Gardening Guide: How to Grow Cold-Weather Vegetables
If you’ve already done the work of digging and prepping garden beds for spring and summer, why not make use of that space for nutritious veggies this fall? With a little effort, you can harvest garden goodies well into winter—even in snow!
What You Can Grow: Cold-Weather Vegetables
Most garden greens and plenty of hardy veggies will thrive in cold weather, and many are actually sweetened by autumn’s dipping temperatures. Some cold-hardy plants, such as kale, mâche and spinach, will still be sending out tender, new leaves when it’s snowing outside. Root crops such as beets and carrots store well throughout the winter, providing four seasons of fresh flavor.
Timing: When to Plant Your Fall Garden
In most areas of the country, it’s not too late to plant your fall garden. The key is to start right now. Many fall garden plants get a good start from the last flushes of summer heat. If it’s already getting cool, you can still plant leafy greens. Garlic and shallots like to be planted around the time of your first fall frost.
To determine the appropriate growing season for fall plants, find out when you can expect the first fall frost in your area. If you’re not sure, search “fall frost” at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website. Then check seed packets for “days to maturity” and subtract that many days, give or take, from your fall frost date.
Most fall garden plants can be started from seeds, but broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale fare better as transplants. Give transplants a solid start by exposing them to direct sunlight for a couple of hours a day for about a week before planting.
As your spring-planted crops die off, replace them with more of the same. Find spots between summer crops to tuck in a row of beets here, a block of radishes there. Consider growing a new crop of peas up your summer trellises. Sow radishes once a month until they stop producing, usually after the first fall frost.
Feed your fall plants with an organic fertilizer (follow package directions) or dig mature compost into the planting areas a week or so before planting. Several weeks into the growing season, reapply fertilizer or add compost near the plant base.
It’s crucial that fall garden beds stay moist, especially when new seeds are germinating. Always water manually when the soil gets dry, or install a soaker hose at the root zone. A thick mulch of grass clippings or straw also helps retain soil moisture.
If pest presence is high in your garden, take extra steps to protect new seedlings, which are vulnerable to critters. Inexpensive, lightweight row covers suspended on stakes or hoops can help shield delicate new plants.
Many fall garden crops will become more productive when harvested early and often. You’ll enjoy multiple harvests of greens with the cut-and-come-again method, in which you harvest leaves rather than heads. With some varieties of cabbage and broccoli, you can harvest the first main head, then come again later for smaller heads and side shoots.
Sure, you can extend summer’s harvest into fall (and feel free to brag about it!), but the really impressive gardening happens in the dead of winter. With a few low-tech tools, you can protect plants from hard freezes and harvest fresh food for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.
Hardy varieties: Some varieties of garden plants simply grow better in lower temperatures. Rouge d’Hiver romaine lettuce becomes even more beautiful, blushing red as the thermometer dips. Green and yellow types of Swiss chard perform better in cold than pink and red ones. Variegata di Castelfranco radicchio is a superb late-season delight. Bolero carrots store exceptionally well, which makes them a great choice for winter eating. To discover more cold-tolerant varieties, read seed catalogs and consult your state’s extension agency. Also check out the section “Fall for Veggies” later in the article for a partial list of great choices.
Unfancy Blankets and Fancy Row Covers: Sometimes all you need to stretch a season is a little protection. Cover plants on freezing nights with castoffs from your linen closet or thick layers of mulch that can be pulled back in the morning. Or opt for tarps, floating row covers and tunnels (available at garden centers). (Learn how build a simple hoop house.)
Cold Frames: Under serious cover, many plants that survive fall temperatures will keep on kicking. For detailed instructions on building a cold frame, which can be done with inexpensive recycled materials, read our article Make a Cold Frame, or check out the excellent book on season extension, Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. According to Coleman, giving plants even one additional layer of protection is like moving your garden more than one full zone to the south.
It’s easy to overlook the possibilities of a fall garden when you’re filling baskets with juicy tomatoes and peppers, crisp beans and giant melons during summer’s peak harvest season. But you won’t regret making the effort when you’re bundled up in sweaters and munching on a fresh, homegrown salad or a bowlful of tender, just-picked veggies. Now get a move on!
Another Good Idea: Cover Crops
If you don’t have time to tend a fall garden, consider planting cover crops, such as hairy vetch, oats, winter rye and winter wheat, in empty beds. Over winter, they’ll load your soil with nutrients for next season while protecting against winter erosion. When spring comes, just cut down or till in the cover crops and start your garden in even richer soil.
Fall for Veggies: Our Favorite Cold-Weather Vegetables
Try these yummy options that don’t mind a chill.
Arugula, Asian greens (mizuna, mustard, pac choi, tatsoi), Collards, Kale, Lettuces, Mâche, Radicchio, Spinach, Swiss Chard
Veggies & Herbs
Beets, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, *Bulb fennel, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, *Celery, Cilantro, Garlic, Kohlrab, Leeks, Onions, *Parsley, Parsnips, *Peas, *Potatoes, Radishes, Rutabaga, Scallions, Shallots, Turnips
*require long fall growing season
Seeds, Cover Crops & Season-Extension Materials
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