1. Clear out your beds. All old plants and vines that have reached the end of production should be pulled out of the soil and disposed of appropriately. While it is temping to home compost all the remaining green goodness from your end-of-season garden, many vegetable plant remains can hold bad insects and diseases that will survive through the composting cycle. As a result, you can add disease and insects back into the garden through your compost. To be safe, pull up all plants and dispose of them in commercial composting or garbage with the city.
2. Loosen and amend the soil. Fall plantings require as much care as new Spring and Summer gardens. Sprouting seeds need loose soil and nutrients to grow. Break-up and loosen soil with a hoe or rake as needed. A little light tilling can be used if the soil is compacted, but remember that over-tilling can result in a loss of nutrients. Your existing garden probably sucked up as many delicious soil nutrients as possible, so add beneficial elements back into the soil. Churn in fresh compost and add organic fertilizers. My raised beds are still greatly lacking in acid thanks to a bad bunch of soil that was delivered this Spring (as I mentioned in this post), so I added Soil Acidifier back into my soil as well. Soil test and be aware of what your garden needs to thrive and grow.
3. Decide if you can use seed or need seedlings. If there is plenty of sun and water, seeds should do just fine. Seedlings or starts may be advisable if you have more shade because some seed may have a difficult time germinating without the light. For example, I have a raised herb bed on a mostly shaded porch right off my kitchen. When I planted my Spring spinach and Fall kale in that bed I used starts to get the plants going in low light. In my raised vegetable beds in full sun, however, I used Kale seed and it sprouts up perfectly as long as I give it lots of water. Another reason to use seedlings is to help promote consistency. I work in an after school gardening program for elementary kids. In those beds, we’re teaching kids how to plant gardens, and seedlings and starts are more consistent. We can control spacing, there aren’t empty spots where seeds failed, we don’t have to thin seed from over planting, and most all the plants thrive. We can also maximize seed germination by planting the seeds in small containers inside and then replanting them outside. So, for educational gardens seedlings replanted from seed sowed indoors is ideal.
4. Select vegetables that thrive in cool weather. Below is a chart of some of the primary crops planted in Fall gardens. See numbers 5 and 6 below for additional pointers on which varieties of these vegetables to choose.
Broccoli and Broccoli Raab
5. Consult your local planting guides. Local planting guides provide excellent guidance on when to plant your seed or starts, and every region varies. A Way to Garden has compiled a comprehensive list of planting guides by state. Go to this page and scroll to the bottom to find your state. In Kentucky, we can plant most Fall crops in August and early September, but all states will vary based on climate and hardiness zones. Garlic is one of those wacky crops you may want to plant late in the Fall (like October) to harvest early next Summer.
6. Pay attention to maturity times and frost dates. Fall is one of the most important times to look at Maturity Dates on your seed varieties because there is a shorter planting season. In general, you need your Fall vegetables to come to maturity in 60 days or less. For example, if I plant my watermelon radishes (with an average 60 days to maturity) in late September, and expect frost in early November, those plants will be killed by the frost before they’re mature and ready to harvest. However, if vegetables like Radishes don’t make it through the frost with large enough bulbs, just harvest and eat the greens on top and allow the bulbs to decompose over winter in your beds. New organic matter is a great addition for the coming season. Look at your area’s first expected frost date and count backwards using the maturity date to help determine planting time. Also, some varieties of vegetables tend to be more frost resistant – Collards, Kale, Chard, etc. Light frost may slow their growth, but you can still plant them with some overlap into forst dates. Baby greens are delicious, so the slowing of growth by frost isn’t such a bad thing. Harvest them when young.
7. Water, water, water. When you have new seedlings water every day. When you have new seed water twice a day. I water in the morning and in the evening. For seed, it doesn’t need to be a deep watering since the plant roots haven’t developed yet. Seeds are usually planted less than an inch deep, and you just want to keep the soil moist and provide the seed the water it needs to germinate. Dry soil is not conducive to new seeds sprouting. Once seeds have sprouted and established – about 1″ or so tall – then switch to watering once a day. Once plants are a few inches tall and sprouting larger leaves you can water per usual and cut back based on rain and other factors.
8. Chart your garden and keep notes of what worked. Make a sketch of what you’ve planted and where. I love this process and keep a big box of colored pencils solely for this purpose. Since I have a sketch, I don’t have to worry about labeling plants in the garden, but always know what I’m harvesting and eating with a quick reference to my drawing. Also, keep a small garden journal of what works and doesn’t in your garden. I used 10 varieties of tomatoes this Summer, I’d like to replant 3 of those next year and rotate the others out. Dinosaur Kale (also known as Tuscan or Lacinato Kale) is always productive in the Fall and is a staple in my garden. If I don’t keep notes, I may forget by the next season and make the mistake of buying something that doesn’t work for my space. I keep the seed packets and tags from seedlings and tape them into my journal. Over time you develop a notebook full of your favorite vegetables and it can become a garden scrapbook of sorts.
If you have questions about your Fall garden that I didn’t answer here, please send me an email or comment below. I’m always happy to answer your questions and help as best I can. In the meantime, happy gardening!