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Planning and Planting the Fall Vegetable Garden

Planting the fall garden in late summer
Vegetable garden rows
Planting the fall garden in late summer

Plant the autumn vegetable garden so that the crops come to harvest on or about the average date of the first frost in fall.

Crops for autumn and early winter harvest are cool-weather crops—crops that like to get their start in warm soil and air but yield best when they come to harvest when temperatures are cool.

Cool-weather crops can be planted twice a year, first in early spring for harvest before the summer heat arrives and again in mid- to late summer and autumn for harvest in the cool of autumn. Some people call the autumn harvest of cool weather crops “the second season.”

Crops that can withstand a light frost—the first frost in autumn–are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chards, collards, radishes, and spinach. Crops that can withstand a heavy frost—usually the second or third frost in autumn or early winter are beets, cauliflower, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, and peas.

Fall garden planting
The fall garden can be started from seed or transplants

Fall Planting Time Formula

Time the planting of fall harvest plants by determining the average first frost date in your area (contact the cooperative extension or a nearby garden center to get this date if you are not sure). With the date of the average first frost marked on your calendar, (1) count backward the number of days required for the seed of that crop to germinate, (2) add the number of days it takes the crop to reach transplanting size, (3) add the number of days to maturity for the crop variety you are planting (you will find this on the seed packet; be sure to choose the quickest maturing variety of each crop for fall harvest), and, finally, (4) add an additional fourteen days to adjust for day-light hours growing shorter in autumn. The total of these days counting back from the average frost date will give you the optimal planting date for each crop.

Autumn garden
Time planting so that autumn crops reach maturity at or near the average first fall frost date.

When to Plant Autumn-Harvest Crops

Here’s a crop-by-crop guide for the number of days from sowing to harvest for the most popular autumn harvest crops: (these numbers may vary slightly by variety):

  • Beets: count back 74 days: 5 days to germination + 55 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Direct sow beets in the garden. Beets can survive a heavy frost.
  • Broccoli: count back 95 days: 5 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size +55 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start broccoli indoors then transplant to the garden. Broccoli can withstand light but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Brussels sprouts: count back 120 days: 5 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size + 80 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start Brussels sprouts indoors then transplant to the garden. Brussels sprouts can withstand light but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Cabbage: count back 99 days: 4 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size + 60 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start cabbage indoors then transplant to the garden. Cabbage can withstand light but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Carrots: count back 85 days: 6 days to germination + 65 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Direct sow carrots. Carrots can withstand light but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Cauliflower: count back 90 days: 5 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size + 50 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start cauliflower indoors then transplant to the garden. Cauliflower can survive heavy frost.
  • Chard: count back 69 days: 6 days to germination + 50 days to maturity +14 days factoring for short days. Direct seed chard. Chard can survive heavy frost.
  • Collards: count back 94 days: 4 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size + 55 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start collard seed indoors. Collards can withstand a light frost but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Endive: count back 142 days: 12 days to germination + 21 days to transplant size + 95 days to maturity+ 14 days factoring for short days. Start endive seed indoors. Endive can survive heavy frost but does best with some protection.
  • Kohlrabi: count back 86 days; 7 days to germination + 65 days: days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Direct seed kohlrabi. Kohlrabi can survive heavy frost.
  • Lettuce, leaf: count back 76 days: 3 days to germination + 14 days to reach transplant size + 45 to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Start lettuce indoors for best results then transplant to the garden. Lettuce can survive a light frost but not heavy frost without protection.
  • Peas: days: count back 70 days: 6 days to germination + 50 to maturity+ 14 days factoring for short days. Direct seed peas. Peas can survive heavy frost.
  • Radishes: count back 42 days: 3 days to germination + 25 days to maturity + 14 days factoring for short days. Direct seed radishes. Radishes can withstand light frost but should be protected from heavy frost.
  • Spinach: count back 64 days: 5 days to germination + 45 days to maturity+ 14 days factoring for short days. Direct seed spinach. Spinach can withstand light but should be protected from heavy frost.
Autumn leafy crops
Autumn leafy crops ready for harvest before the first fall frost.

Quick Tips for Planting Fall Harvest Crops

  • Know the average date of the first autumn or winter frost in your area. You can get this date from a nearby garden center or nursery or from the local cooperative extension. Remember the average date is an average, frost may arrive sooner or later this year.
  • Always choose the fastest-maturing varieties of a crop for fall harvest.
  • The optimal number of days to harvest will be printed on the seed packet or in the grower’s seed catalog. This number assumes long days and warm temperatures.
  • The optimal soil temperature for seed starting is 80°F (26°C).
  • Crops always take longer to mature in the late summer and fall because the number of hours of sunlight is decreasing along with air and soil temperatures–so factor in 10 to 14 additional days for plants to mature as daylight hours grow shorter.
  • Cabbage-family crops are commonly seed started indoors then transplanted into the garden when they reach about 4 inches (10cm) tall. Cabbage-family crops include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and collards.
  • As frost approaches, remove mulches from around plants; this will allow the soil to absorb radiant solar heat that can be released back into the garden at night.
  • Protect frost sensitive crops by covering them with a horticultural blanket when frost is near.
  • Autumn crops can easily be grown on or after the first heavy frost or during freezing weather, but they must be covered and protected. Place a simple plastic tunnel over the crop.

Also of interest:

How to Prepare a Winter Vegetable Garden

 

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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  1. All of my fruit trees lost their leaves when it got hot this summer. The apricot trees had new growth sprouting and it got extremely hot again. Will the trees make another come back or did I lose them for good. They are all new trees as of last fall. I live in Las Vegas nevas.

    Any and all information you can give me will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance. Missie Goodin

    • Young trees are most vulnerable in the first year or two after they are planted. Until the trees are well rooted they will need your help. Tree roots follow the water so it is important that you “deep water” the first couple of years. Turn the hose to low and set it near the trunk of the tree and allow the water to seep slowly into the soil for an hour or two–you should do this at least once a week and perhaps more often if the weather is hot and the soil easily dries. Roots will follow the water deep into the soil. If you water lightly–as you would a lawn–tree roots will not grow down but out, horizontally; then the trees will be vulnerable to hot weather and soil drying during the warm and hot times of the year. Give your trees plenty of organic matter; at least twice a year spread well-aged compost around the base of the trees to about 3 feet from the trunks of the young trees. Irrigation and rain will help carry the compost into the soil and create soil that is rich in organic matter that will hold soil moisture in reserve next year during the hot season. This year, you may want to erect a frame over your trees and drape the frame with shadecloth to protect the trees from hot weather as they recover from the defoliation caused by hot weather. There is still plenty of warm time in your region this season; if the trees have not succumbed to the heat, they will at least begin to re-leaf out in the next month or two–then you will know they are still viable and will make a comeback next spring.

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