turnips.jpg With September officially upon us, it’s probably high time to think of prepping the garden for winter, packing away the garden tools and thinking about what to plant next spring. Or is it? Fall gardens can actually yield plenty of vegetables if you know how to find hearty, cool season ones. Granted, it’s not like keeping a more traditional spring to summer garden. There are special care considerations to keep in mind, but once learned, you could be hauling in fresh greens throughout the fall.

Care tips for a fall garden

With a fall garden, you’ll be battling frost conditions, increased pests and a recently used gardening space. But these conditions are easy to work with if you know how.

Preparing the space

You will, of course, have to remove what may be left of the spring and summer crops, and possibly any weeds. Till the remaining soil six to eight inches deep. If the previous plants were heavily fertilized, you may be able to forgo fertilization. Otherwise, NC State University recommends, “One to two lb. of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 may be applied per 100 square feet of bed space.”

Planting your crops

Usually, direct seeds are used in a fall garden, though you’ll want to plant them one-and-a-half to two times deeper than a spring crop due to a lower moisture level and higher surface temperature in the soil in fall. The summer heat will often leave soil dry and hard, which will negatively affect germination. You may want to shade, lightly mulch or cover the seeded area with burlap to retain moisture. Fortunately, water bans may be lifted by this time, so proper irrigation could be far easier.

Watering and feeding your crops

Typically, vegetables require one inch of water per week. Mature vegetables can get away with deeper, single waterings, where seedlings will need lighter and more frequent waterings. Also, according to NC State University, “Many fall maturing vegetables benefit from sidedressing with nitrogen just as do spring maturing vegetables. Most leafy vegetables will benefit from an application of nitrogen three and six weeks after planting.”

Protecting against insects and diseases

Insects and diseases can be more common in the fall, since they have all spring and summer to bolster their numbers. Keeping plants healthy and hearty with good care will prevent these issues in many cases, but keep an eye on fall vegetables for signs of damage. If you see damage from bugs, use a natural pesticide. Also, choose vegetables that are known to be hearty.

Watch out for frost

Keep an eye out for the first expected frost through weather reports or the Famer’s Almanac. There’s a good frost-to-garden chart that will help you know what to plant in relation to your area’s first frost. Many crops can weather a frost (see below), but otherwise keep plants protected by placing down burlap or a floating row cover. In many areas, you can still get in weeks of good growing time after the first frost. With these tips, you’ll be off on your fall gardening adventure in no time. But once you have these tips down, you’ll need to know what to plant.

Choosing hearty fall crops

There are plenty of crops that will survive cool temperatures. For assessing what those are, the University of Arizona provided a template for determining when and what to plant. The equations is as follows: 

Number of days from seeding or transplanting outdoors to harvest 
+ Number of days from seed to transplant if you grow your own 
+ Average harvest period 
+ Fall Factor (about 2 weeks) 
+ Frost Tender Factor (if applicable) 
= Days to count back from first frost date 

That number will tell you when to plant. The Frost Tender Factor only applies to vegetables that are susceptible to frost, like tomatoes and corn. It probably won’t apply as much to cool weather vegetables. As for what to plant specifically, here is a list of common crops that are troopers in cool temperatures from the University of California:


With rich soil and regular water, lettuce will keep coming in the cool weather. Some varieties do very well in the colder months. Swiss chard will grow all year in mild climates and laughs at cool weather in general. Spinach, kale and bok choy are also common cool weather crops. In fact, greens usually turn to seed in warm weather and thrive in cooler weather.


November is listed as a great month to plant peas in the more mild climates, so if you really want to extend your growing season, remember these little nutritious pearls.


These little beauties come in a many more colors than the typical red, and they’ll grow fast. You can have them in a month with some of the smaller kinds.


This super easy crop requires little water, little room and comes to maturity almost on its own.


These can be harvested all year and take to the cooler weather like polar bears, from a vegetable standpoint.


While they love rich soil and regular water, they are easy to grow from bulbs.


These filling staples will grow in about three months, typically. If you’re in a warmer climate, the recommended time to plant is in February.


This entry comes from the University of Tennessee, which recommends planting both the greens and root varieties in September (until Sept. 30 for greens and until Sept. 15 for roots). It’s a good guide for planters in Tennessee or in a climate similar to that area. Since the U.S. has such a wide variety of climates, however, there is no universal rule for when to plant crops for every area. Peas may thrive in California February temperatures, but in Minnesota there’s just no planting anything outdoors due to the frozen soil. September in one part of the country may be cool, while other parts are still sitting with summer temperatures. As a final note, when in doubt, look up fall planting schedules through your local universities. Many of their agricultural extensions will have good information on when to plant what. For instance, this planting chart from the University of Maryland shows what to plant when. It recommends planting cool, hardy crops like radishes and spinach into September. So just because it’s fall doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop planting your own local, sustainable harvest.