The idea of a fall vegetable garden can be a bit misleading. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the label “fall” indicated harvest time, not planting time. Granted, in July and August, while we’re swimming in 90+-degree heat, it’s a challenge to remember that the longest day of the year is long past. Temperatures stay warm, but the hours of daylight that plants need decreases every day. The time to plant is now, so perhaps a better name should be “midsummer garden.”
Seed companies make it easy to plan your fall harvest by identifying which vegetables will still produce if planted now. Some will even taste better thanks to the cooler temperatures to come. Cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choi —prefer a cooler climate and can even tolerate some frost.
Here’s what’s on the menu for the fall garden:
Johnny’s Selected Seeds makes planting easier with a Planting Calculator for Fall Crops. You plug in the earliest fall frost date and the calculator shows the planting dates for direct-seeding and for setting out plants. When I plugged in October 28 (more or less the earliest frost date in our area), I got some surprising results: planting dates as late as early to mid-August for beets, broccoli, Asian greens, kale, kohlrabi, carrots, lettuce and more. Knowing how dim the light seems in September, I’d be inclined to plant several weeks earlier than what the calculator recommends.
It doesn’t matter where you buy your seeds. Do look for early maturing varieties, since there’s a big difference between, say, a carrot variety that matures in 55 days and one that matures in 75 days (essentially three weeks), or a beet that’s ready in 40 days and one that’s ready in 55 (two weeks difference). Some kale varieties are ready for “baby” leaves to be picked in 25 days, while the traditional variety for Portuguese kale soup takes 80 days.
The productive life of fall veggies can be prolonged by the use of tunnel hoops or row covers.
A few words about cold tolerance of vegetables. It’s hard to predict how they’ll be affected, because a lot has to do with preconditioning. Some advice from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, in the Texas A&M System:
“If broccoli has been growing in warm conditions and temperatures drop below 22 degrees F., it will probably be killed. If these same broccoli plants had experienced cool weather, they would probably survive the sudden cold.
“In general, a frost (31-33 degrees F.) will kill beans, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peas, pepper, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and watermelon. Colder temperatures (26-31 degrees F.) may burn foliage but will not kill broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, mustard, onion, radish, and turnip.
“The real cold weather champs are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots, collards, kale, parsley, and spinach.”
To the list of cold weather champs I’d add parsnips. These can be left in the ground well into the winter. Leave them under a heavy layer of mulch and dig them up as you need them—as late as January and February.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.