When to Plant a Fall Garden

The term "fall garden" is such a misnomer. 

"Fall garden" implies planting in the fall, right? When it's cooler and a gardener can stand to be outside, not when it's as hot as the inside of an oven on baking day, and so humid you have to swim from the front door to the garden, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

But NO.

Fall gardens must be planted in the summer. 

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When the temperature is really too hot for those little seedlings that must be kept hydrated so they don't fry in the heat of the sun, and they need to be protected from ravenous bugs such as grasshoppers and blister beetles. 

(Are you plagued by blister beetles too? Here's how to fight them organically.)

But those seeds must be planted in the summer so they'll mature before the first autumn frost.

Find your average first frost date

When should you plant a fall garden in your garden zone?

It's helpful to know what garden zone you're in, but you also need to know the average date of your first autumn frost. This date will vary across your garden zone, according to where you live.

So the first step to figuring out when to plant your fall garden is to identify the date of your average first frost. 

This page at Dave's Garden will give you a general idea. Just enter your zip code in the box, and the calculator will tell you the average dates of your first frost in the fall and your last frost in the spring.

Of course this is just an average date; each year is different and there are no guarantees with the weather. It's an average of many years' worth of first frost dates.

Plus there are pockets here and there of small eco-systems that will be warmer or colder than others. 

For instance, we live at a higher elevation than our nearest town so we tend to be a bit colder in spring and warmer in the fall. Dave's Garden says that our average first frost here in zone 7b is October 28th.

What you can plant in a fall garden

Short-season and cool-weather crops are the best choices for a fall garden. 

Greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale, brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage, fast-growing root vegetables such as carrots and radishes, and other cool-weather plants such as peas are ideal. 

Choose varieties that are fast-growing by checking seed packets for their "days to maturity." You can compare several varieties of radishes, for example, and choose one that will mature quickly.

When to start your fall garden and what to plant in it.

For example, Early Scarlet Globe Radishes take 22 days to mature, on average.

By the way, "early" in the name is a good sign. This variety matures a full week ahead of other varieties of radish.

Where to plant your fall crops

One of my favorite ways to garden is to use nature to fool nature.

I can often keep growing lettuce in my summer garden for longer than I should be able to, because I plant it in the shade, either shade from the fence or in the shade of larger plants.

Using this method, I could plant fall lettuce in a shady spot, and have more chance of success than planting lettuce in full sun when the temperature is over 100°F.

When the weather cools down and the daylight hours are fewer, the larger plants creating that shade will have died back and autumn leaves will have fallen from the shade trees. Your fall plants will have adequate sunlight to grow and mature.

You can also add shade deliberately with shade cloth on the south and/or west sides of your garden bed. 

Another advantage of fall gardens

Growing cabbage and other brassicas in a fall garden is often easier than in the spring! 

You might not be invaded by cabbage loopers that eat your plants. The tiny little caterpillars have already completed their life cycle and might no longer be a threat.

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Figure out your planting dates

To figure out the best planting dates, let's use those Early Scarlet Globe radishes as an example. They take an average of 22 days to mature.

So count backwards 22 days from your average first frost date. 

I subtract another week or two so they will hopefully be ready to harvest before an early frost, although most fall plants will survive a light frost if you cover them in some way. 

That gives you the last planting date for the Scarlet Globe radishes.

Now let's add my garden into the example. 

October 28th [my average first frost date] minus 22 days [number of days for the radishes to mature] minus another 7 days [an extra week, a sort-of insurance policy] means I should plant those radishes no later than September 31st in zone 7b.

[Average first frost date] minus [days till maturity] minus [7 days] = [your last planting date]

This equation gives you the last date you can plant, unless you use some sort of season extender such as low tunnels.

But you can, of course, plant earlier too. That's just the last planting date, so you'll be sure your radishes have time to mature.

Lettuce and other seeds can be planted in succession. By planting more lettuce seeds every 7 days or so, the plants will mature over a longer period of time. 

(In other words, I'd subtract another seven days from the last planting date for lettuce, and plant several more lettuce plants. I could subtract an additional seven days and plant even more!

You can extend your harvest using succession planting and avoid having all of your lettuce ready to harvest at the same time. 

Lettuce loves cool weather and some sources say you can plant lettuce seeds until right before the first frost. 

Loose leaf lettuce matures faster than head lettuce and other types, so it's the best choice for a fall garden.

Want to grow lettuce in your fall garden? Here's how to figure out when to plant it.

Sample planting dates

Here's the schedule of last planting dates for my own garden in zone 7b, using seeds from Mary's Heirloom Seeds. I recommend planting heirloom seeds in your garden, and you can find out why in this guest post by Mary.

Pak choy - 33 days - Extra Dwarf Pak Choy Cabbage - plant before September 18
Radishes - 45 days - French Breakfast - plant before September 6
Lettuce - 45 days - my own mix of loose leaf varieties - plant before September 6
Beets - 50 days - Early Wonder - plant before September 1st
Spinach - 50 days - Bloomsdale Long-Standing - plant before September 1st
Peas - 55 days - Sugar Ann Snap Peas - plant before August 26th 
Carrots - 55 days - Little Finger carrots - plant before August 26th
Carrots - 68 days - Scarlet Nantes - plant before August 14th
Cabbage - 70 days - New Jersey Wakefield - plant before August 12th

(Actually, you can steal my schedule no matter what garden zone you live in. If your first frost date is one month earlier than my October 28th date, subtract one month from the planting dates above. Or if your average first frost is a week after mine, add one week to my planting dates. Go ahead, I don't mind!)

Garlic in the fall garden

Garlic is also planted in the fall, but it grows all winter long and is harvested the following summer. Learn how to grow garlic from cloves here.

Transplanting seedlings into the fall garden

Some seeds can be started indoors where the temperature is cooler. You'll want to start these seeds earlier, since "time to maturity" is usually calculated from the transplant date. 

In other words, those radishes can take 22 days to mature after you've transplanted them into the garden, instead of 22 days from the day they are direct-sown and sprout in the garden.

Some plants just shouldn't be started indoors though. Carrots, for instance. Because the tiny roots will become the actual carrot that you harvest, transplanting a seedling can result in twisted, deformed carrots. It's best to plant them directly in the garden.

This list suggests the best time to transplant your fall seedlings into your garden:

  • Radishes should be transplanted when they have two sets of leaves
  • Lettuce when they are 2-3 inches tall
  • Cabbage when they are 3 inches tall
  • Peas can be transplanted just after they've sprouted
  • Spinach when the plants are 2 inches tall
  • Beets, like carrots, aren't supposed to be transplanted. However many gardeners have said that they've transplanted beets with success.

Our favorite way to eat beets is in this sweet and sour dish that
my Grandma made for me when I was a child. Delicious comfort food!

If you have leftover seeds after planting your fall garden, can you save them to use in the spring?

Yes, you can! Find out how to store the leftover seeds from your seed packets so you can plant them next year.

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When to plant your fall garden, and what to plant in it.