You can grow vegetables for harvest in the fall. Plant a fall and winter harvest vegetable garden in mid-to-late summer.
Hardy, cool-weather crops are best suited for the fall vegetable garden. Cool-weather vegetables like to get their start in warm soil and come to maturity when days and nights are cool.
Cool-weather vegetables include leafy crops and root crops: beets, carrots, and parsnips; salad greens, including lettuces; and members of the cabbage family like red and green cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. These crops are considered hardy because they can tolerate a light frost and can even survive when temperatures dip down to the mid-20s. (The flavor of many cool-weather crops is enhanced when the plants are touched by frost.)
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The fall-harvest vegetable garden also can include tender, warm-season crops, but these crops must come to harvest before the first frost. Warm-weather crops include tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, squashes, melons, pumpkins, peppers, eggplants, and beans. These must be planted in early summer for a fall harvest; these crops must be harvested before the first fall frost.
When to plant a fall vegetable garden
Planning and planting for fall and winter harvest should begin in early- to mid-summer depending on how soon cold weather will arrive in your region.
Where growing seasons are shorter—USDA Zones 4-7—and summers are cooler, cool-weather crops for harvest in fall and winter harvest should be planted in June. If your growing season is longer or your winters are relatively mild, cool-weather crops can be planted in July and in some regions even August.
Look ahead to the average first frost date in your area to determine when cool-weather crops will need to be harvested. Count back the number of days to maturity for each of the specific crop varieties you are planting to determine when to plant.
Let’s have a look at the growing period for cool-weather crops:
Days from planting to harvest:
- Beets: 60—80
- Broccoli from plants: 60—80
- Brussels sprouts from plants: 60—80
- Bush beans: 40—60
- Cabbage from plants: 60—90
- Carrots: 60—70
- Cauliflower plants: 60—80
- Chard: 60—80
- Chinese cabbage: 80—100
- Endive: 60—80
- Leeks: 120—170
- Lettuce: 60—90
- Parsnips: 95—120
- Radish: 28—40
- Rutabagas: 90—100
- Spinach: 40—50
- Turnips: 50—80
You will notice some spread in the planting-to-harvest time for some crops. This is determined by the variety and the stage at which the vegetables are picked. There are several varieties of cabbage to choose from—some are small-headed and are ready sooner than large-headed types. Fingerling carrots can be pulled in 60 days, but you can let carrots develop for a month longer if you wish. Rutabagas grow sweeter as the autumn weather grows nippy, but you can harvest them sooner. And so it goes.
The important thing is to begin to plan early and make sure that seeds are planted and start growing with harvest time in mind.
Growing season and vegetable garden planting tips
The time for planting vegetable garden crops depends upon where you live. The number of days between the last frost in spring and the first frost in autumn is the length of your growing season. Every crop you plant must germinate, grow and come to harvest during your growing season. If your growing season is too short for the crops you want to grow, you must assist nature by extending the growing season with crop coverings or protectors.
Cool-season vegetables are best suited for the beginning and end of the growing season, for planting in spring, autumn, and winter. These plants grow best as the soil and air temperatures become warmer in spring and as the heat wanes in late summer and autumn. Cool-season vegetables thrive when the temperature highs are in the range of 70º to 75ºF (21-24ºC). (Cool-season crops usually require a minimum germination temperature of 40º to 50ºF.)
Hardy cool-season vegetables are the best selection for planting in the early spring for late harvest and in late summer for fall and winter harvest. Hardy crops can be sown directly in the garden as early as 2 or 3 weeks before the last frost in spring. These same crops will grow into the cool of autumn when planted in late summer; they can withstand the first fall frost.
Planting the fall and winter vegetable garden may require a bit more planning than planting the spring garden. Crops for autumn and winter harvest that are not grown under cover must be planted early enough that they come to harvest before the first freeze in autumn, but not so early that the heat of summer reduces their output. In spring, the garden is nearly a blank slate with plenty of room for planting. In late summer and early fall when the autumn and winter garden is planted, space in the garden may be limited–many late summer harvest plants are still in place.
Crops for fall and winter harvest require enough heat to grow and reach maturity, but not so much that they are scorched or grow too fast, set seed, and wither too soon. Cool-season crops are the best choice for planting in late summer and early fall, just as they are suited for growing in spring.
A cool-season crop planted in autumn can take as much as three weeks longer to come to harvest than the same crop planted in spring. That’s because the days are growing shorter and less warm as autumn turns to winter.
Temperature and planting for fall harvest
The time to plant vegetables for fall and winter harvest is mostly determined by temperature, specifically when you expect the first frost or freeze to visit your garden.
Simply, if you know the average date of the first frost in your area (a local nursery can tell you this); you can simply count backward from that date the number of days each crop you plant requires to mature to determine that crop’s planting date. For example, if the first frost in my garden is expected on November 1 and I want to plant leaf lettuce that requires 45 days to mature, then counting backward my planting date would be about September 15.
Some cool-weather crops can tolerate frost but not freeze. Some cool-weather crops can tolerate freezing temperatures if protected with thick mulch or plant blankets.
Long-staying and short-staying vegetable crops
When planting the fall vegetable garden, the group planted crops by the number of days they require to harvest and the amount of protection each requires. For example, I would want to plant lettuce and spinach close together because they come to harvest in about the same number of days and I can protect both crops from an early frost or freeze by placing a plant blanket over both.
Fall vegetable crops can be categorized as long-staying and short-staying crops. Many long-staying crops can tolerate frost and can stay in the garden past the first frost date, short-staying crops can’t.
Plant long-staying, frost-tolerant vegetables together. Frost-tolerant vegetables include beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collards, garlic, kale, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, spinach, and turnips.
Plant short-staying, frost-susceptible vegetables together. These crops will be removed from the garden after the first killing frost. Frost-susceptible vegetables include beans, cantaloupes, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, okra, peas, peppers, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and watermelons. (Many of these crops are warm-season crops, but if you choose a variety with a short number of days to maturity, you can include these in your fall garden.)
To plant the fall garden keep the following things in mind: (1) the number of days to maturity and harvest; (2) the average height and width of the plant, the amount of space it will require; (3) the frost sensitivity of the crop—is it frost-susceptible (FS) meaning it will be killed or injured by temperatures below 32°F degrees or is it frost-tolerant (FT) meaning it can withstand temperatures below 32°F.
Short-stay or quick-maturing crops
Short-say or quick-maturing crops come to harvest in 30 to 60 days. Quick-maturing vegetables include beets (½ foot) FT; bush beans (1½ feet) FS; leaf lettuce (½ foot) FT; mustard (1½ feet) FT; radishes (½ feet) FT; spinach (½ foot) FT; summer squash (3 feet) FS; turnips (½ foot) FT; and turnip greens (½ foot) FT.
Medium-stary crops are ready for harvest in 60 to 80 days. These crops include broccoli (3 feet) FT; Chinese cabbage (1½ feet) FT; carrots (½ foot) FT; cucumbers (3 feet) FS; corn (6 feet) FS; green onions (½ feet) FT; kohlrabi (½ feet) FT; lima bush beans (1½ feet) FS; okra (6 feet) FS; parsley (1 foot) FT; peppers (3 feet) FS; and cherry tomatoes (4 feet) FS.
Long-stary or slow-maturing crops.
The slow-maturing or long-staying crops require 80 days or more to reach harvest. These vegetables include Brussels sprouts (2 feet) FT; bulb onions (1 foot) FT; cabbage (1½ feet) FT; cantaloupes (1 foot) FS; cauliflower (3 feet) FT; eggplant (3 feet) FS; garlic (1 foot) FT; Irish potatoes (2 feet) FS; pumpkins (2 feet) FS; sweet potatoes (2 feet) FS; tomatoes (4 feet) FS; watermelon (1 foot) FS; and winter squash (1 foot) FS.
When to plant for fall harvest
The key to planting vegetables in mid- to late-summer is timing. Plant the late summer and autumn vegetable garden so that the crops reach maturity and harvest before or on about the average date of the first frost in fall.
If you know the average date of the first frost in your region, you can count backward the number of days to determine which crops you can still plant and harvest before the first freeze. (Of course, if you plan to protect your late summer and autumn crops with row covers and plastic tunnels, you can add many more days to your growing season.)
Second summer harvest
If you want to grow your second—or even your first–garden of summer vegetables this year and you have determined, for example, that you have 90 days until the first expected frost, then there is still time to set some short-season tomato and pepper seedlings in the garden. And 90 days is also enough time to start crops such as bush beans and some squash varieties from seed.
Check the days to maturity on seed packets; choose crops that want fewer than the number of days until the first expected frost. Bush beans, many cucumber varieties, determinate tomatoes, and baby melons may easily fit this bill.
Plant these crops just like you would in spring. But expect that with the soil now warm, they will germinate and begin growing much more quickly than they did when the ground was still chilly in spring.
Fall and early winter harvest
If you want a fall and early winter harvest vegetable garden, then choose cool-weather crops; these are the same crops you planted early last spring for harvest before the weather turned warm and hot. Cool-weather crops love to get their start in warm soil and air, and they will yield best when they come to harvest as temperatures cool as winter approaches. Some people call the autumn harvest of cool weather crops “the second season.”
Many cool-season crops can withstand a light frost—the first frost in autumn; these include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chards, collards, radishes, and spinach. And there are cool-weather crops that can easily withstand a heavy frost—usually the second or third frost in autumn or early winter; these include beets, cauliflower, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, and peas.
Cool-season vegetables for fall harvest
Crops for autumn and early winter harvest are cool-season 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-season 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.
Cool-season vegetable guide
As a quick guide, here’s how many days several cool-season crops need to reach maturity:
- Crops that require 90 days: beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, globe onions, parsnip, and rutabaga.
- Crops that require 60 days: broccoli, early cabbage, early carrots, winter cauliflower, chard, collards, kohlrabi, leeks, and turnips.
- Crops that require 30 days: chives, leaf lettuce, mustard, bunching onions, radishes, and spinach.
Plan the fall and winter vegetable garden step-by-step
Cool-season crops are best suited for planting in autumn, winter, and spring. In spring, cool-season crops can be planted just before or just after the last frost. Planting cool-season crops in autumn and winter takes a bit more planning.
To plan and plant your autumn and winter garden follow these steps:
Step 1. Start with the number of days it takes the crop you are planting to grow to maturity and harvest. Days to maturity will be listed on the seed package. (If you are transplanting vegetable seedlings from the garden center, the days to maturity from transplanting are usually listed on the plant marker.)
Step 2. Determine the average first frost date in your region. If you are not sure, check with a nearby garden center, the master gardener program in your area, or the county or state agriculture extension office. Remember that this date is an average and thus a guideline for your calculations. The first frost date varies from year to year.
Step 3. Add 10 days to the number of days to maturity for the crop you are planting. Now count back on a calendar from the average first frost date the total number of days for each crop. That is the last recommended date to direct seed the crop. (Direct seed means sowing the seed in the soil of your garden.)
Prepare to plant the fall vegetable garden
• Know the average date of the first frost in autumn. (You can get this information from a local garden center or cooperative extension.) Check the days to maturity on seed packets and count back that number from the first average frost date to determine the last day that the seeds can be planted and still produce a crop. Add a week to ten days just to be safe.
• Choose cool-season crops for the second-season garden. Cool-weather crops germinate best and thrive as young plants in warm soil and warm temperatures. Cool-weather crops mature best when day and night temperatures average no greater than the low 60s and mid to high 50s. (These are exactly the temperatures that cause warm-weather, tender crops to falter.)
• If you do plant tender crops in late summer, plant varieties that will mature and be ready for harvest in 50 days or less.
• Have at the ready crop protectors: (1) floating row covers such as lightweight Remay fabric that can be draped across crops if temperatures turn cool or cold unexpectedly. Anchor floating row covers in place with stones or garden staples; (2) Hoops made from wire or irrigation tubing over which you can drape clear plastic sheeting to create a plastic tunnel or mini-greenhouse; you can also use two-by-four or four-by-four inch mesh wire fencing to create a half tunnel over which you can drape clear plastic sheeting; (3) A thick layer of straw, dried leaves, or other organic mulch can be forked around crops to keep the soil warm.
When to plant each fall-harvest vegetable
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.
Tips for planting fall harvest vegetables
- Know your area’s average date of the first autumn or winter frost. 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 and 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.
Feed the soil before planting for the fall harvest
Be sure to give summer-planted crops a nutritious start. Spread and work well-rotted compost into the planting bed. Or spread four to five pounds (pints) of all-purpose fertilizer for every 100 square feet. You can broadcast this across the planting bed and mix it in during the digging for seed sowing or plant setting.
Be sure to sow summer planted seed a little deeper than you did for spring plantings; the soil is warm now and the weather is drier so the seed will germinate a bit quicker but need some protection.
If the soil is dry, drench furrows or mounds with compost tea before sowing seeds. This will give summer-started cool-weather crops just the boost they need.
Protecting fall and winter harvest crops–extending the season
To enjoy cool-season vegetables past the first frost in autumn and even to enjoy many fresh-picked vegetables all winter, you will need to extend the growing season. Extending the growing season in autumn (and in early spring before the last frost) requires protecting or covering your crops so that they are not harmed by sudden changes in temperature or freezing weather.
Growing autumn and winter cool-season crops in a cold frame or covering them with a cloche or plastic tunnel will protect them from freezing weather and extend the harvest. A cold frame or tunnel can up the daytime temperature by 10 to 15 degrees and the nighttime temperature by 10 to 15 degrees.
For plants finishing their growth in the days just before and after the first frost, a covered temperature of 60 to 65ºF will allow the plant to complete its growth and come to harvest. Once cool-season crops have reached maturity under cover daytime temperatures between 30 and 40ºF are sufficient before harvesting. When winter arrives, cool-season crops at maturity will essentially hibernate or maintain. They are grown and in cool weather, they will simply sit waiting to be harvested. That’s how you can bring fresh-picked crops from your garden to the table long into winter.
Even freezing temperatures inside the cold frame in late winter do not mean the end of your winter harvest. Mature hardy vegetables will not be destroyed by hours or even a day or two of freezing temperatures as long as they are able to thaw naturally every few days. Even leaf crops such as radicchio and escarole whose outer leaves freeze and turn brown will yield a heart that is harvestable and delicious.
Fall vegetable garden cleanup
Clean the garden of plant debris and decaying vegetable matter at the end of the season to be sure insect pests and plant diseases do not overwinter in your garden.
At the end of the harvest or after the first hard frost, clean the garden and compost plant refuse or dispose of the debris that is diseased or pest infested. Garden sanitation is important in preparing for the next growing season.
Remove dead or dying vegetable material to the compost pile or chop or break up plants as best you can and turn them under so that beneficial soil organisms can begin the process of breaking down organic material and returning it to the soil.
Use a sharp-bladed spade, machete, or tiller to chop debris into pieces. Plant material that is chopped or shredded will be more easily digested by soil bacteria. If garden debris is left whole in the garden pests can hide and overwinter and return to the garden in spring.
Remove and compost or turn under young weeds and grass that has not set seed from the garden as well.
Chop up the stems and leaves of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower plants, also tomato vines, cornstalks, melons, and squash vines. All of these will decompose faster if chopped into small pieces.
If you had problems with soil-dwelling pests such as wireworms during the past growing season or if you suspect larvae or pests are in the soil, leave the soil exposed for several weeks after cleanup allowing birds and the frost to kill them. Cultivate or turn the soil weekly to upturn soil pests.
Once planting beds are clean of debris and any remaining pests, plant a cover crop or mulch the bed.
Before mulching you can test the soil or amend the soil in anticipation of spring planting.
Pests and diseases that overwinter in the garden
- Aphids overwinter in cabbage family stalks and leaves; pull up stumps of Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and sprouting broccoli.
- Flea beetles overwinter in weeds and plant debris.
- Slugs and snails shelter and lay legs under plant debris and wood.
- Downy mildew fungi overwinter in plant debris.
Also of interest:
Garden Planning Books at Amazon:
- Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner
- Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide Vegetable Encyclopedia
- Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide
- Tomato Grower’s Answer Book