As into the middle of harvest time for many of my summer crops, instead of starting to wind down for the year I’m starting to plan my fall garden crop rotations. It may not make sense to try to stuff more plants into what already seems like a jungle, but extending your vegetable garden into the fall is easier than it sounds and will keep the harvest going deep into the winter.
For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together.
For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.Edwin Way Teale
Growing a new rotation of annual crops in the fall/winter avoids many of the problems (pests, watering, bolting, etc.) that you normally have to deal with for summer crops. Although the days get shorter in the fall, temperatures tend to be more consistent and insects slow down their lifecycles to settle into hibernation.
Picking root crops in the winter is also advantageous because root plants tend to convert starches to sugars during the winter in order to warm up the plant and keep it alive during cooler temperatures. Carrots, parsnips, beets and winter radish will all be much sweeter and less woody if picked in the winter and early spring months.
Many brassicas, lettuces, and spinach will flower and become bitter (as they put their energy into producing seeds) if they sense the temperature rising above a certain level (known as photoperiodism). Growing them in the cool of the fall will ensure that they still produce a healthy abundance of sweet and tender leaves.
The key to planning a fall garden is picking hardy vegetable varieties and using calendar math to count back from expected frost dates. The table below lists good candidates for a fall garden.
How to determine when to start fall crops
Count back from the average first frost date in your area. I like to also add 2 weeks to allow for the slower growth that happens in the fall. For example, we live in zone 7a here in northern Virginia and our first frost date is October 15, so our start dates for some example fall crops looks like this.
One of the keys to growing for the fall is making sure the plants are big enough before the days get too short. One of my tricks is to start root crops very early in the summer (June) and then grow them in full shade before transplanting them in the early fall.
I also find the fall to be a great time to start your biennial and perennial plantings. Biennial crops (2 years life cycle) like onions/leeks, garlic, and swiss chard only flower in the second year and tend to be hardy enough to survive frost conditions. Planting them in the fall will give them a head-start for the following year’s crop and allow them to establish a strong root system.
Finally, I also prefer doing transplants of berry bushes and other perennial vegetables or herbs in the fall because it gives them extra time to get acclimatized, with the possibility of getting a good harvest the very next year.
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