4 Essential Tips For Planning Your Fall Garden—And 5 Veggies You Can Still Plant In August

Start your late season crops in the heat of August to enjoy a second harvest in September and October.

August 3, 2017
planting a fall garden
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You may be in full summer-harvest mode, picking zucchini, tomatoes and basil every night; or, maybe you got sidetracked this spring and your plans to get the vegetable garden going just never quite materialized. Either way, it’s already August, and in many parts of the country, it’s time to plant fall crops!

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The timing for fall crops can be tricky because you need to leave enough time for them to mature before cold weather sets in. In addition, fall crops may need a little extra time to mature because they receive less daylight as the season winds down. In most temperate growing zones, fall-planted crops will be ready to start harvest in September and October. In very mild climates like the Pacific Northwest (where I live), many of these crops can survive through the winter, providing much needed garden love in the gloomiest months of the year. Fortunately, a successful fall garden hinges on only a few simple rules:

Related: 8 Gardening Mistakes You Make Every Fall

1. Get started early

By the time many people start thinking about fall crops, it’s already too late. To ensure a successful fall and winter harvest, you need to start many of your late season crops in the peak of summer. In most regions, this means planting in the heat of August to give your crops time to size up while growing conditions are still good. Some fast growing fall crops like lettuce and radishes can be planted into late September; but many desirable fall crops like broccoli and carrots need several months of prime growing conditions to mature before frost and low light levels set in. When in doubt, plant your fall crops a little early.

Related: Your Garden To-Do List For August

2. Know how long it takes fall crops to grow

Make sure you know your crop’s life span: Each crop has a relatively predictable lifespan, meaning that you can anticipate approximately how long it will take to reach harvestable size. The life span of the crop is usually defined by the phrase “days to maturity,” which will be listed on the seed package or plant tag. Days to maturity will vary a bit by environmental conditions, but these numbers should be fairly accurate. As a general rule, you should plan your planting so that the crops have time to reach maturity before the first frost (find out what your local frost date is here).

3. Harvest summer crops ASAP

Get out there and harvest your spring and summer crops: Planning a successful fall garden hinges on the proper management of spring and summer plantings. In most gardens, where space is limited, it is imperative that early season crops are harvested and removed from the garden in a timely fashion. This clearing makes room for the new fall plantings. Crops that may be finishing up in your garden mid-summer include garlic, onions, potatoes, carrots, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. You might also still have some spring salad greens that are exhausted and ready to come out. When choosing which fall crops to add to your garden, start by making an inventory of currently harvestable crops. This will allow you to determine how much space you will have available and prioritize the fall plantings you care about most.

Related: The Flower Seeds You Should Be Planting In Autumn

4. Know that crops last longer in fall

Fall and winter gardening turns your vegetable plot into a giant refrigerator. During the fall season, cool weather allows crops to hold longer in the garden once mature. Crops like broccoli, cabbage, and kale can live for months in the garden after they reach maturity. Even fast growing crops like spinach, cilantro, and lettuce will hold their quality for much longer when planted for fall harvest. If you plan properly, you may be able to harvest from the garden all through the cold season and into the early spring.

Related: 7 Quick Growing Veggies You Can Still Plant In Your Summer Garden

Now that you are primed to select crops that still have time to mature in your region and have opened up space in the garden for new crops, it’s time to discuss fall crop options. While not comprehensive, the following list includes the most popular and commonly requested crops for fall planting in our gardens:

 
planting carrots in fall
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Carrots (about 70 days to maturity)

Direct-sow carrots into the garden in rows spaced 6-8 inches apart. If your garden has drip irrigation, sow the seeds along the drip lines. Carrot seed is very small and can be hard to sow precisely, so aim for 5-8 seeds per inch. You’ll need to thin the plants to one seedling per inch once they have germinated, but overseeding helps ensure a fully filled-out row. Once fall carrots are mature, they can hold in the garden for months. You’ll find that carrots typically taste even better than normal when harvested in the fall after a few light frosts. If you’re gardening in an area that experiences hard frosts during the winter, pull all of your carrots out of the garden before frost sets in or mulch your beds with a thick layer of straw to protect their exposed crowns. 

Recommended varieties: Napoli, Nelson, Bolero

Related: Your Guide To Growing Carrots

growing radishes in fall garden
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Radishes (about 30 days to maturity)

Direct-sow radishes just like you would carrots. Radish seed is a much bigger seed than carrot seed, so you can aim to sow 3-4 seeds per inch. Just like with carrots, most radish varieties need to be thinned to one seedling per inch once the plants have germinated. Radishes grow quickly, so if you start sowing in early August, you may have time to squeeze in two plantings before the season is over. Try to harvest your radishes as soon as they reach maturity, because they’ll continue to grow and quickly loose their texture if left in the garden.

Related: How To Grow Radishes

A note on “fall radish” varieties: Like all crops, radishes come in myriad shapes, sizes and colors. The most commonly grown salad types have quick lifespans and climate adaptability, which allows them to grow successfully in spring, summer, and fall. However, some types of radish are bred specifically to perform only in fall conditions. Both daikon and watermelon radishes are categorized as “fall or winter radishes." While these make wonderful additions to the garden, they do take much longer to mature than salad radishes, so make sure to note their days to maturity before planting.

Recommended Varieties: French Breakfast, Cherriette, Watermelon

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broccoli in fall garden
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Broccoli (about 70 days to maturity)

Transplant broccoli into the garden, spacing plants 12-18 inches apart. Broccoli loves nitrogen, so an additional application of an organic nitrogen source like blood meal or alfalfa meal will help it thrive. Ideally, fall broccoli plants will form a central head late in the season, but before winter temperatures set in. Broccoli is cold-hardy and can survive through the winter in some climates. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we leave it in the garden until spring, when it begins to put on a series of florets. Non-heading broccoli varieties (called sprouting broccoli or raab) are often especially cold hardy, so consider mixing some of these into the fall garden plan. The same fall planting strategies apply to other classic brassicas like kale and cabbage.

Recommended Varieties: Arcadia, Bay Meadows, Purple Peacock

Related: 6 Things You Need To Know Before You Plant Broccoli This Fall

scallions in fall garden
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Scallions (about 60 days to maturity)

Scallions can be direct sown or transplanted into your August garden. If sowing seeds directly, sow 4 seeds per inch in rows 6-8 inches apart. Scallions are a great addition to the fall garden because they grow quickly and add a bright, fresh flavor to winter soups and salads. Their tiny “bulbs” come in both white and deep purple and, like purple onions, the purple scallions hold their color when cooked.

Recommended Varieties: Evergreen Hardy White, Deep Purple

Related: How To Grow Scallions

grow salad greens in fall garden
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Salad greens (about 30 days to maturity)

Obviously salad greens are a category, rather than a specific crop, but most salad greens can thrive during fall growing conditions. Since salad greens have relatively short days to maturity, they can often be planted through August and into September. Most salad greens perform best when direct seeded into the garden, and they do not generally require thinning. Some of the most common types for direct seeding are leaf lettuce (baby lettuce mix), arugula, spinach, and mustard greens. Head lettuce types like romaine and butterhead perform best when transplanted. Consider planting a handful of different species for a dynamic fall salad.

So, get out there and plant your fall garden! Remember that the key to success is planning, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the lifespan of the crops you’re planting and start to make room for them by clearing out those exhausted spring plantings. 

Hilary Dahl is a co-owner of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, where she helps beginning and experienced growers create beautiful and productive gardens. She has worked on a wide range of projects, from small backyard garden plots to multi-acre vegetable farms. She also works in her own garden every day when she gets home. Hilary produces a weekly podcast called Encyclopedia Botanica, where she and her co-host, Kellie Phelan, discuss seasonal garden topics and share the joy of growing your own food.