How to Start a Fall Vegetable Garden the Easy Way

Have you heard your gardening friends raving about their fall gardens? Most people think of springtime as the ideal time to grow vegetables, but more and more people are discovering the magic of a fall vegetable garden. You should too!

Figure 1 - Photo credit: Chris Sorge via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

In many areas, fall is actually an ideal time to grow vegetables because temperatures have dropped down from the summertime highs, and fall is a rainy season in many regions.

There are a few tricks you can use to make your first fall vegetable garden more successful. And there are a few pitfalls that you should watch out for. We’ll take a look at all of them below as we discuss how to start a fall vegetable garden the easy way.

Prepare Your Soil

If you already have an existing vegetable garden, you’ll want to add some compost to revitalize the life in the soil. This is especially important if your garden has been dormant all summer long. The intense sunlight of summer afternoons and the high temperatures that come along with it can be very hard on the microorganisms that bring fertility and life to your soil.

So, add some compost and consider working in a light application of fertilizer and essential trace minerals if you don’t think your soil is fertile.

If you don’t have an existing vegetable garden bed, a square foot raised bed is a great way to start. You can build a simple raised bed for a minimal investment, and this is a very easy and efficient way to grow vegetables.

Figure 2 - Photo credit: blahness71 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Locate your new garden bed in full sun, far away from any invasive plants like ivy or jasmine. If you’re building a bed in the middle of a lawn, put down a thick layer cardboard or landscaping cloth to prevent the grass from growing up into your new garden bed.

Use Transplants, Not Seed

When your garden bed is ready, the next step is choosing the plants that you will grow this fall. A lot of people make one critical mistake when it comes to fall vegetable selection: they choose seed instead of choosing transplants.

Figure 3 - Photo credit: miriamwilcox via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Growing plants from seed is rewarding and educational, and if you’re interested in doing that I would highly encourage you. But spring is a better time to grow most plants from seed. Fall is a short season, and you will be racing against time to get your plants to maturity before the first hard frost of winter arrives.

Choose transplants for your fall garden instead. By starting with plants that have already sprouted and started to grow, you’ll have a much better chance of harvesting mature vegetables before winter comes and kills your plants.

If you want to grow plants from seed for your fall garden next year, you can definitely do that. The trick is that you need to start the seed several weeks (approximately 6-8 weeks depending on variety) before it is time to plant them out for fall. So, seed for a fall garden is actually started during the summertime.

Set Up a Watering Schedule

When you have prepared your bed and selected appropriate starter transplants, the next step is to get your watering schedule nailed down. Watering is actually a little bit trickier in fall than it is during the summertime.

In summer, you need to water frequently and thoroughly to prevent your soil from drying out. In fall, watering is more of a tight-rope walk as you need to manage conditions and prevent your soil from becoming over-watered. This is especially true if you live in a climate where fall is a rainy season.

You can’t rely as heavily on automatic watering timers as you can during the summer. You need to monitor conditions and ensure that water is only applied when it is needed, after your soil has started to dry out.

Without a doubt, the best way to monitor the moisture level in your soil is to stick your finger into soil. That’s right – stick your finger in as far as you can get it and feel to see whether the soil feels wet or dry. There’s really no more effective method to judge whether a garden bed is wet or dry. Don’t worry, the dirt washes right off.

Water early in the morning on days when your soil is dry and there is no rain in the forecast. If your soil is already moist, don’t add any additional water because doing so can encourage mold, mildew, and pests.

Choose Cold-Hardy Plants

Sometimes, before winter really arrives, there will be short bursts of cold temperatures that approach freezing for one night before temperatures return to normal the next day. This is called commonly called a “light frost.”

Figure 4 - Photo credit: photofarmer via Foter.com / CC BY

Light frosts can kill some tender vegetables, while others survive them without injury. For your fall garden, you want to select cold-hardy vegetables that won’t be bothered by the occasional light frost. Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, kale, leeks, lettuce, radishes, and spinach are great choices. And there are many more. Just make sure you don’t have any tender plants like eggplants or tomatoes growing in your fall garden, as they will likely get nipped by a light frost before they yield any food.

Pro Tip

Want to extend your vegetable gardening season even further into the cold temperatures of winter? Try a low tunnel! Low tunnels are a cheap and easy way to protect your vegetable garden from freezing temperatures. With a low tunnel, you can keep many fall vegetables growing right through the early weeks of winter.

Low tunnels can protect semi-hardy vegetables, but they won’t help sensitive tropical plants like avocado trees or tea plants. Those plants should be moved to a protected area before frost arrives.

Choose Plants with Short Days-to-Maturity

When purchase transplants from a nursery, often times you will find a small plastic marker in the pot that gives you some information about that plant’s specific requirements and preferences. On vegetable transplants, these markers frequently include information about “days-to-maturity” or “DTM.”

Days-to-maturity is an average measurement of the number of days it takes that plant to become mature and yield food after transplanting. And there can be a big difference in the days-to-maturity between different varieties of the same vegetable.

For instance, one variety of broccoli called Packman takes an average of 55 days to develop a mature head of broccoli. Another variety, Calabrese, takes an average of 70 days.

Figure 5 - Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

By choosing varieties with short days-to-maturity, you can tip the scales in your favor and increase the chances that you will harvest fresh vegetables from your garden before winter’s freezing temperatures and heavy snow cut your gardening season short.

Don’t Forget to Fertilize

Finally, a word to the wise. Don’t forget to fertilize!

Sometimes we skimp on our gardens and we don’t provide all of the nutrients that our plants would like to have available. But a fall vegetable garden is no place for skimping.

After all, you’re trying to squeeze fresh food from your garden in as short a timeframe as possible. You can speed that time up, and greatly improve your chances of success, by applying a mild fertilizer. Apply fertilizer regularly, according to the recommendations on the product.

Happy Fall Gardening

I wish you many successful seasons of fall gardening. I know that if you follow the advice above, you will be successful in growing plenty of fresh produce year after year.

Do you have any tips or tricks about fall vegetable gardening that you’d like to share? Have you tried to grow a fall vegetable garden before – with or without success? Leave me a comment down below to share your thoughts. I’d love to hear what your experiences have been!
James G. Craig
 

James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.

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