I hope you got your garden in this spring and are enjoying its bounty this summer. This is one of my raised beds, which sprouted and bloomed pretty much as it was supposed to–except for my non-bumper crop of seven carrots. For me, gardening is rarely a string of perfect victories. “A work in progress” would be closer to the mark.
This year I’m adding a fall garden. Especially if you live where winters are short and mild, this is actually one of the best times to grow a food crop. Even MI Gardener in Michigan says that the fall garden is one of his favorites. Fewer weeds, less heat, and you never have to worry about anything bolting and going bitter on you overnight.
If you’ve never planted a fall garden before, much of the time you actually end up planting it in the summer. On timing, it’s a matter of counting down to frost days instead of waiting for them to be over like in spring. So, you’ll need a little bit of information to get started.
First, you’ll need to know the first frost date for your region. This site (https://morningchores.com/frost-dates/) will tell you when you can statistically expect your first and last frost dates of the season. For example, I should plan on getting frost days from December 1 through February 18. That gives me 115 days left this year that I can reasonably expect to stay above freezing. This is more than enough for many crops.
Another thing you need to know is what types of plants work well in fall gardens. Many gardeners recommend leaf crops like lettuce, spinach, and arugula; root crops like carrots, beets, and parsnips; greens like kale and chard; and the brassicas–cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collard, and broccoli (although this last is hit or miss, due to the long growing season required). It’s also a great time to grow peas and green beans, as well as aliums like onions, garlic, and leeks. Many of these plants do poorly when daytime temps exceed the 80s, which is a daily summertime occurrence in my particular northern California climate.
And the final thing you’ll probably have to do is to grow your crops from seed. You can find potted young veggies all over the place in the spring, but many people seem to think gardening is over for the year as soon as those plants mature. But normally you can get a decent harvest if you just read the seed packet for planting depth. I save those six-pack packages from planting in the spring for starting seeds, but you can buy seed starting trays, and you can also use old egg cartons. Or you can sow your seeds straight into the ground.
When you plant your seeds depends on several things–your first frost date, how long particular vegetables take to reach maturity, and how much space you have.
For instance, I just planted my fall potatoes and onions, which I plan on leaving in the ground until I want to eat them or I have to worry about snow. (Some years we get it, sometimes we don’t.) These crops I already planted in spring and harvested, so I had a wide-open bed that I could manure, plant, and re-mulch. My varieties of onions and potatoes take between 100-110 days, so that gives me a few days of wiggle room before my first frost.
Other veggies will likely have to be worked into the garden as it stands. I’m not about to pull out productive tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers to plant something else. But I’ve already harvested a lot of my cabbage, and some of my annual flowers are already dying back. Those openings will be where I plant my carrots, more cabbages, and chard.
For leaf crops, I recommend waiting until it’s actually fall to sow them, since so many of these plants dislike hot summer days. In my area, the weather cools down in early September, so that’s when I’ll sow the first of my spinach seeds. Leaf crops mature quickly, so you don’t have to worry so much about the first frost day breathing down your neck. You can also use covers to protect leaf crops and expend the growing season. Jess, at Roots and Refuge Farm, turns those plastic portable file boxes upside down to extend her greens harvest into winter, which I thought was a genius idea (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IXn2t8GLh0).
There’s nothing quite like harvesting your own food. I rarely have to go to the store lately, which is good for the whole pandemic safety thing, and it saves on the budget, too. And what with all the current uncertainty, between Covid, civil unrest, and the possibility of an economic downturn, starting a fall garden seems like a good idea.
Happy gardening. : )