Thankfully, fall is about a lot more than just “back to school” and pumpkin spice-flavored everything. With a little planning and planting, you can extend the growing season well into fall. Most people think to ask about this in September or October. By then, it’s really too late. You can do a lot more with a fall garden if you start now.
Luckily, most of us are in a sweet spot when it comes to our gardens this time of year. We’re just in a pattern of watching and waiting. The mountains of produce aren’t taking over our kitchens just yet. Most of our big outside planting projects are done. Deadheading, watering and keeping up with weeding are the big three tasks at the moment.
If the idea of a fall garden peaks your interest, start planning now. If you are a vegetable gardener, mid-July through about mid-August is the time to sow cool weather crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Start them just as you would start seeds in the spring. Personally, I prefer these vegetables when they’re grown in the fall. A light frost actually helps release sugars from the cells in the plant, which makes them taste sweeter.
Other cool season crops you can plant as we move towards fall are lettuce, turnips, collards, carrots, peas, radish, and spinach. All will tolerate cool fall temperatures well. Green beans, though considered a warm season crop, may be planted for fall harvest since they mature quickly. Most varieties of green beans grow and develop in 50 to 60 days, so as long as you get your seeds planted by mid-August, you should be able to harvest beans before frost.
It is also possible to extend your vegetable gardening season by using floating row cover and cold frames with cool season crops. Both will help hold in the day’s heat during chilly fall nights.
Fall gardening also includes flower gardens. Just a few pansies, mums, asters, snapdragons or ornamental kale will help brighten up the garden after a long hot summer. And many will keep flowering even after light frost. I have also had pansies surprise me with a flower during a brief winter “warm up”!
I use Labor Day weekend as the time to plant my fall containers. I used to wait until later, even into October, but I was always a little disappointed in the results. I hate to rip out summer plants that still look decent.
On a whim one year, just because I saw some beautiful fall plants at the garden center, I did my planters on Labor Day weekend. They were far better than any fall planters I had ever grown before. I think that by planting in early September, I gave the plants a few extra weeks of warmer weather and time to develop and establish themselves before temperatures really started to drop. The results were fantastic and definitely worth repeating.
Every spring I get questions about the thousands of bulbs blooming at my house. When I explain they need to be planted in the fall, many people tell me that by the fall they will forget. So consider this your friendly reminder: this is also the time to plan your spring bulbs. It seems early to be thinking about planting spring bulbs, but now is the time to take advantage of early bird specials. Several catalogs have arrived at my house already advertising everything from free bulbs to significant discounts if orders are placed before a particular date.
Fall is also a great time to plant perennials. Many garden centers have incredible sales as fall approaches. The soil is already warm, unlike the cold, clammy soil in spring. The garden is in a "mature" state so you can see if you really have the room you think you do for a particular plant. I am just as guilty as anyone in cramming too many plants into the available space. It's easy to believe you have more room than you do when the garden is just waking in the spring.
The key to getting fall planted perennials to survive the winter is timing and mulch. The plant's roots need to grow and establish sufficiently before winter sets in. Though the ground doesn't typically freeze in this area until December or January, the cold temperatures slow plant growth, including roots.
The safest advice to follow is to plant your perennials no later than September. That way, temperatures are still warm enough to promote good root growth before cold weather hits.
Adequate mulch is essential for fall planted perennials. They need a little extra mulch for the winter, applied in late October or November. Just be sure to remove it in the spring.
Over the years I have gardened a little, a lot, or not at all in the fall. I’ve planted vegetables, annuals, and perennials. After a winter like last year, I am eager to keep gardening in any way, for as long as possible before winter comes again.