Learn how to plan and lay out your fall vegetable garden. It can include some things are thought of as summer crops as well as the more traditional cool weather vegetables. A fall garden will extend your harvest window up to your first frost and beyond. Free sample layout guide and planning calendar included.
Why should I worry about a fall harvest?
Even though spring and summer get all the attention in the gardening world, fall is a great time to be harvesting vegetables. Working outside is more enjoyable in the cooler weather. Many vegetable enjoy the cooler weather too, and will do better than they will in spring. It is usually more pleasant for tasks like canning and dehydrating. But a fall garden has to be planned in spring and early summer. Here is how can be sure you are getting the most out of your garden space by using the whole season.
What can I plant in a fall garden?
More than you think!
There are two types of annual vegetables planted in most home gardens: tender annuals and hardy annuals. Tender annuals are the crops we think of as being summer crops, and they get all the attention in the gardening world: tomatoes, peppers, melons, and corn. They are killed by the first fall frost and they like hot weather.
Hardy annuals like cool weather and can survive a frost. Broccoli, peas, onions, spinach, and lettuce are the most popular. They are usually the first things to go in the garden in the spring.
A fall garden should have both tender annuals and hardy annuals. There should be a mix of warm season and cool season crops. In all but the shortest growing season areas, there is enough time for a second planting of some tender annuals.
Tender annuals that make good fall vegetables:
- Tomatoes (especially types for canning)
- Bush beans
- Summer squash (smaller types will do better)
The reason you want to replant tender annuals in early summer is to extend your harvest season. Some crops, like bush beans and corn, will put out a lot of vegetables and then lose steam as summer goes on, simply because the plant is designed to bear a lot in a short period of time. If you plant all your bush beans on May 1st, you won’t have any in September. But in many areas, there are still two months of warm and sunny weather. The only way to extend your bush bean harvest right up until a killing frost is to plant them again in June. (Some areas will allow for three plantings!)
Then there are some tender annuals, like tomatoes and cucumbers, that should last all the way to the first frost… but they don’t! In humid regions, tomatoes are often diseased by August. I have found the only way to deal with this is to rip them out. If I have another crop that was started in June and planted in July, then there is no problem. Tomatoes keep coming even though the first crop is gone.
Cool Season Annuals For fall harvest:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green onions
Hardy annuals, on the other hand, are mostly a repeat of the spring harvest. Broccoli, lettuce, peas, and other cool-season crops can’t survive a hot summer and have died. In many regions, they will do better than the spring planting because there is no sudden onset of summer heat.
But there is one big exception. Bulbing onions can’t be fall planted (unless you are in the South and planting a very specific variety). They need certain day lengths.
When should I plan to start seeds or set out plants for my fall garden?
NOT IN THE FALL. That is way too late, and starting too late is probably the number one reason that fall gardens do poorly.
Timing when to plant has everything to do with your first frost date. If you don’t know the date of your first fall frost, use this guide to find your local extension agent, who can give you very precise information. Looking online is not always reliable, as many areas have distinct micro-climates.
The first frost will kill tender annuals, and slow down the growth of even cool-season annuals. So by the expected first frost date, we want our tender annuals to have matured and have been enjoyed or preserved. It’s the end of the road for them. I
Even cool-loving hardy annuals are affected by cooler temperatures. They won’t die, but they won’t grow as quickly. So we want them mature and ready to eat by the first frost, even though they can still be enjoyed later.
Calculating planting dates
Once you know the first frost date, you look at the seed packet to see how long something needs to mature. So let’s say you have a first frost date of November 1st, and you would like to enjoy some corn in the fall. The seed packet says it needs 90 days to mature. (This will vary widely based on the variety). We count back 90 days. August 3rd is what we get.
Does this mean we plant on that date? NO. The days are getting shorter even in July, and the plants will grow slower. So add 14 days to make up for the slower growth. 104 days are needed to get corn to maturity before the first frost. Our last planting date, therefore, for a 90 day variety, is July 17th. Even that is pushing it a bit, because frosts can come early, and you don’t want to have it come one day before harvest.
Planting timeline to help plan your fall vegetable garden:
I made this chart based on average varieties of each vegetable. It is a guideline. If you have quick-maturing varieties, you can push your dates a bit later. Exceptionally large or slow growing plants will need to be started earlier. You’ll still need to do the math. This chart shows you the last date you can plant to be guaranteed a harvest by frost. You can still plant earlier. (Things like bush beans, radishes, and baby greens can have many successive sowings.)
(By the way, I find figuring out the dates really hard. I just say to Siri: what is 92 days before November 1st? And she figures it out!)
Note that hardly any of these fall vegetables are started in fall. The secret to a productive fall garden is that it is started in the summer or even in late spring. You should write down any pertinent dates on a calendar or set a reminder in your phone. Spring and summer are a busy time, and it’s easy to forget!
By the time you have harvested your first cabbage or broccoli, your fall planting of cabbage and broccoli need to be in your mind. Since transplants aren’t readily available in the fall in many places, you may need to start the seeds yourself. This means that in May, your fall garden is underway. (Here is my favorite seed starting system.)
So where do I plant all these fall harvested vegetables?
Yes, this is the hard part. The easiest answer is: wherever your cool season spring crops were. There will be a short period of rest. Hopefully you can use that time to amend the soil with compost. You will want to rotate crops as much as your garden plot allows. Replace spring greens with fall brassicas, and vice versa.
But what about the warm season crops that we are planting a second time? Your late tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans will need to go in before the first crop is ready to be pulled out. That means that you must have space waiting for them. You can plant a spring crop there early in the season if it will be totally pulled early enough. Look for very quick vegetables like baby spinach and radishes. Otherwise, you will just have unused space.
Warm season crops are longer lived, so they require a little extra planning and some reserved space.
I find that fall crops can be spaced a little closer together than normal. They don’t experience that huge flush of growth in May and June that spring and summer plants have. When you are working on your layout, you can try the closest recommended size on the seed packet.
Sample Fall Garden Layout:
This example layout may help you in your garden planning. It is based off of 3-foot wide beds, which could represent either raised beds or sections of wide rows. When you are doing your planning, keep in mind things like succession planting. You don’t want 20 heads of romaine coming in at once. But if you are planning on canning a lot of tomato sauce, you might want all your tomatoes to come in at the same time! (Vegetable gardens should make sense.)
Fall garden planning summary:
- Think of what vegetables you would like to have in September and October (keep preserving in mind!)
- Decide on your target harvest date
- Calculate your planting date by counting back and adding 14 days for fall growing
- Calculate even further back if you are starting your own seeds
- Write down start dates on your calendar
Will you be starting a fall garden?
I hope you are feeling inspired to use your growing season to its fullest potential. If you would like printable versions of the garden layouts and planning calendar above, sign up here for my mailing list and I will email them to you directly as PDFs.