Spring isn’t the only time for planting vegetable crops. The fall months are actually perfect for getting your favorite root vegetables in the ground and seeding perennial staples. This is also the time of year when you need to leaf through garden catalogs and order seeds for early spring planting.
By taking advantage of autumn’s cooler temperatures and bouts of rain, you can extend your garden season quite a bit. Although North America offers a huge range of winter temperatures, in all but the coldest regions, it’s often possible to harvest crops right through December, January and February—that is, if you select the right ones. Some crops, like members of the onion family, actually like a blanket of snow, and even tender crops like spinach and lettuce, as well as many herbs, can handle sub-freezing temperatures, especially if you grow them under row covers or in cold frames.
If you’re not quite ready to put your garden to bed and you need some help figuring out what crops can take you into the cooler months, here’s a quick guide for planting and transplanting in the fall.
If you want to harvest big, juicy heads of garlic in July, you need to plant them in October. It’s important to order seed garlic—large heads of garlic that are free of sprouting inhibitors—from seed companies in late-summer to early fall, as supplies often run low. Separate the garlic bulbs into cloves, leaving the skin on, and plant each clove with the pointed side up and the blunt side down 1 to 2 inches deep in well-worked soil. Cloves should be spaced 4 to 6 inches apart in rows 1 foot apart.
Plant shallots using the same growing instructions.
Other members of the allium family—onions, leeks, chives and shallots—all do well in the garden over the winter, as well. Leeks especially love the cold weather, so sow seeds directly in the garden in early fall or start seeds in peat pots in late summer for fall transplant. Space the plants 4 to 6 inches apart in rows 1 foot apart, and mound dirt around the stalk every couple of weeks to encourage the white end. (The part of the stalk that grows above ground will turn green.) You can harvest leeks when the base of the stalk reaches 1 to 2 inches in diameter.
Onion sets, or bulblets, are widely available in fall, and by planting as cold weather approaches, you may get fresh scallions over the winter. In the coldest regions, the sets may hibernate underground in winter, but they will pop up in the spring. Plant onions 1 to 2 inches deep in soil mixed with some compost—a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is preferred. Avoid burying the neck of the plants too deeply to avoid rot, and provide consistent irrigation until the bulbs get bigger.
Chives can be seeded in the fall. You can also split existing clumps to transplant in the garden or pot up to bring inside for year-long use. Snip chives for use in cooking 30 days after transplanting or 60 days after seeding. If you cut the chives down 1 to 2 inches from the base, you should be able to get three to four harvests per year.
Young strawberry plants are typically sold for spring planting, but plenty of companies sell them in the fall, as well. With this seasonal jumpstart, you may be able to pick up a whole season of productivity. Many gardeners pinch off all the blossoms during the first season to allow the plants to put energy into root development; fall planting lets you leave the spring blossoms on and harvest a crop the first year.
Late fall is a great time to split existing rhubarb crowns. If you don’t have plants of your own, seek out a friend who can share their wealth. Divide the crown into sections that contain one to three buds, and replant about 2 to 3 feet apart before the bulb dries out. Amend the soil with a 12-12-12 fertilizer, compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, and cover the area with mulch. Rhubarb takes a few years to get established, and fall planting lets the harvest begin a year earlier than otherwise.
Like rhubarb, horseradish can also be divided in the fall and will take a couple years of growth before you can harvest. It likes very cool temperatures for root growth and flavor development, so it’s an excellent choice for cooler climates. It’s also fairly drought-tolerant, but regular irrigation will help prevent woodiness.
Spinach, chard, kale and lettuce are must-haves in the fall garden. Plant seeds in late-summer to early fall for a quick crop of these greens—the cool weather sweetens them and prevents them from bolting. If you happen to get seeds in the ground too late, do not worry. Look for the sprouts to come up in spring.
Radishes are famous for their speedy growth—as few as four weeks from planting to harvest for some varieties. Those planted from seed in fall will provide a nice crop of rosy roots and edible greens after summer crops are through. The cool weather enhances their flavor, and you can sow them successively for a constant crop.
Lacy and delicate, cilantro is actually pretty tough. It sprouts quickly from seed, producing edible leaves in a few weeks, followed by the seeds, known as coriander. If planted in late fall, cilantro seeds may stay dormant over winter and sprout quickly in spring. The plants will also frequently self-sow.
Parsley is another great cool-weather crop. While growing it from seed can take forever, you can transplant clumps in fall that may stay productive much of the winter.
Protecting Your Fall Crop
It’s a good idea to protect fall-planted areas over the winter with a layer of straw to provide a layer of insulation and prevent frost heaving as soil freezes and thaws. Frost heaving is not as big a big concern with small seeds and seedlings as it is with crops like rhubarb and horseradish, which have larger roots. Don’t lay the straw down in a thick layer; rather, remove sections from the bale and fluff them up and sprinkle the loose material over the soil.
Avoid adding too much water and fertilizer to the soil in the fall. You don’t want too much tender growth too fast. Frail stems are susceptible to the cold.