Getting Ready for Fall and Winter Crops

Your spring planted garden has given you lots of food but now many of the plants are looking a bit ragged; it’s time to plant your fall crops for almost year-round homegrown food.

Many plants will do better planted in fall instead of spring. Partly because they like cool weather and partly because the cooler weather discourages many insect pests.

How to Prepare Your Vegetable Bed for Fall Planting

Take a good look at your garden. What plants are looking a bit worse for wear? What plants are no longer producing?  Get out your pruners and cut away dead or dying plant biomass. Leave the roots in the ground because they’re feeding microorganisms that you want to remain in your soil all winter.

After you’ve cut off spent vegetation add a layer of compost to add nutrients your summer crops used. Start a new compost pile with the biomass you just removed from your garden.

Use some of the seeds you have left over from spring or buy seeds for fall. Pay close attention to the “days to maturity” on packet or catalogue.  You want to plant the varieties with the shortest “days to maturity” times. 

Planting seeds in the heat of August and September will require a little extra care on your part. Plant seeds a bit deeper where the soil is cooler. Your fall seedbed will have to be kept moist until seed germination and while it’s still hot. Using a shade cloth will help keep the seedbed cooler, as will that extra compost you added before planting.

Vegetable Varieties Perfect for a Fall Crop

Fall is the time for planting root crops and interesting greens. If you’ve been eating lots of salads all summer, you might be over them. But what about fresh spinach or Asian greens from your garden? They do very well in cooler weather and some Asian greens will even survive light frosts.

Tip: When a light frost has hit your greens wait until the sun has warmed the leaves before you touch them.  There is a good chance they’ll come back good as new. Handling the leaves before they’re completely dry will rupture the cell membranes, killing the plant – even if the frost didn’t.

Fall gardening is a fun time to try out different root vegetables and exotic greens. For example, even if you plant beets and they don’t get very big before your first frost the greens are delicious in salads and the greens with tiny beets are wonderful steamed. There are numerous varieties of Asian greens that can be harvested in as little as 30 days. Spinach and kale also do well in cool weather.  In growing zones 6+ (USDA map) both  can survive all winter under a cover, or mulched, and give tender sweet greens during winter thaws.

List of Fall Crops

These are my favorites. This is not a complete list by any means. I happen to like spicy things, as you’ll notice. Spend an afternoon looking at your favorite seed catalogue or go through the seeds you have left over from spring planting. Fall vegetable gardening is when I experiment, looking for new fall and winter crops.

  1. Tatsoi – Asian green, the leaves look like little spoons and I can begin to harvest baby leaves as cut and come again in as little as 21 days. It has a mild mustardy flavor great in salads. The full head is a beautiful rosette and mature in 45 days. It’s extremely cold tolerant.
    Mizuna winter crop
  2. Mizuna – an Asian mustard green that matures in about 40 days. 
  3. Radish – I plant two varieties of radish, seed pods and root crops. Plum Purple is a root radish, I’ve been saving the seed of these for over 20 years, and I plant radishes all season whenever I have a blank spot in the garden. Not all radishes are root crops, Dragon’s Tail is an arial radish. The plant can get up to 5 feet tall and it’s beautiful in my flower garden. The purple seed pods give color after most of my flowers are done. You eat the seed pods when they’re long and skinny. They take 50 days to mature but if there’s a frost, I pick them all because they won’t survive and they’re tastier when they’re smaller.
  4. Lettuce – Every year I pick a couple of different kinds based on color and days to maturity. Lettuce has a tendency to get bitter in the summer heat but stays sweet in the cool of autumn. Like most fall crops a bit of shade and a moist growing bed are needed for success.
  5. Kale – usually my kale from spring is still going strong, if not I plant a “curly” small leaved type of kale because they seem to be more cold tolerant than the large-leaved varieties.
  6. Turnip – what I call “salad turnips”. Depending on the variety they can reach maturity between 38 -60 days. Although the leaves aren’t frost tolerant the turnip itself can handle all but the worst of frosts. Pick a few greens from each plant (not too many from any one plant or you’ll stress it) and gently sauté as a side dish or use raw in salads. The turnips aren’t very large and don’t need to be peeled. They’re sweet and juicy, easy to eat just like an apple.
  7. Beet – my favorite variety is Bull’s Blood for fall planting. The greens are a beautiful red addition in salad. They lose most of their color when cooked. Bulls Blood takes 50 days to maturity but if winter is knocking on my door, I’ll harvest the whole crop. The beets are best when small, so I never let them get to maturity anyway.
  8. Spinach – It does so much better in cooler temperatures. If we’re having a heat wave in September, I shade the plants, so they won’t bolt and go to seed (like the same spinach did in the summer heat). Mulching spinach will help it through winter and may be one of the first greens you’re able to harvest in the spring.
  9. Swiss Chard – one of my favorite vegetables. It’s so versatile. I plant Ruby Chard in my flower beds because it’s so pretty. The baby leaves are perfect for salad. I can sauté the mature leaves or use them in frittatas, quiches, or stews. The red color remains when lightly sauteed and makes a beautiful plate.
  10. Kohlrabi – some years this doesn’t make it before hard frost, it takes 8-10 weeks to mature. But when it does, I can peel them, slice them, and have a perfect “chip” for hummus. I’ve also added kohlrabi to cabbage and radish in a ferment.  

This year I’m also going to try cilantro and arugula. They went to seed as soon as the hot weather of summer hit. I’m hoping they’ll do better as a fall crop; I’ll keep them well watered and hope the cooler temperatures will keep them in leaf longer so I can harvest with a cut and come again method.

Garlic – A Fall Crop for Next Summer

Garlic is a must in everyone’s fall garden.  It takes almost a whole year to mature but, depending on the variety, you have more than one crop. Hardneck garlic is grown in the north. It gives a spring crop of “garlic ” that are milder than the cloves but great in stir fries and frittatas.  They are long twisting seed stalks with little bulbs, or bulbils, on the tops. They have to be cut off if you want good sized garlic bulbs. Otherwise, your garlic plant will divide its energies between the seeds and the bulb, neither becoming the best they can be.

Soft neck garlic, grown in warmer climates, doesn’t have the scrapes with bulbils but it’s the garlic that you’ll find beautifully braided. Garlic is planted in the fall for next summer’s harvest. It’s one of the easiest crops to raise. Plant the cloves and then add a thick layer of mulch  for winter protection. They’ll send up shoots through the mulch in the spring.

Plant Fall Crops Anywhere There is Bare Soil

After your tomato plants are done and your peppers are harvested, cut down the spent biomass to add to your compost. You’ll notice pockets of fall crops and areas of bare soil.  Because you’ve cut the spent plants instead of pulling them you still have root biomass feeding the microorganisms and creating humus.

Nature doesn’t like bare soil so she will plant something there, even if a frost is coming the next week. This is the time to add compost and those leaves you’ve raked up in the yard to your beds for weed control and for soil fertility. Some weeds may be covering your soil already but they may not really be weeds.

Purslane is a great ground cover and was brought to the Americas by the British as a salad green. Try it. It’s a succulent with a lemony flavor. But hurry, it’ll be killed with the first frost.

If you’ve still got some dandelions around the entire plant is edible, although bitter. The root is a mild laxative and is often found in herbal teas. It was brought to the Americas by Europeans as a medicinal plant.

Letting these edible “flowers” have a place in your fall garden will feed a diverse microbial community and make your meals more interesting.

Summer’s end doesn’t mean putting away your gardening tools. It’s the beginning of a new season of fall crops. Have fun and experiment. For more information on nutritious foods subscribe to our newsletter.

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