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Can you feel it? The cooler nights, crisper mornings? Well, it might be a little early for that yet. But that’s right, I’m already talking about fall! Not pumpkin spice lattes and scones, but fall gardening. The fall garden is every gardener’s last hurrah to get another harvest or two before winter.
Right now, I’m planning my fall garden. My soil is sandy clay, and the ground isn’t very fertile, so I’m planning to do a cover crop. I also want that cover crop to be useful in the short-term as well.
I have lots of animals to feed, so I want to grow some things that I can feed them with also, to lower the feed bill. This is my first fall garden, so I only hope that I’m not getting started too late. Our first frost (we’re in zone 7a) is just around the corner, on October 6th!
I ordered oats, Austrian Winter Peas, beets, and turnips from Baker Creek Seed Company, and they sent me a package of purple carrots as well. We get very intensely hot, dry summers, so there are a few things that we can’t grow very well in the heat of summer. They do better in the spring or fall garden.
Here is some helpful fall gardening tips to get what you need before winter sets in.
Benefits of fall gardening
Fall gardening can be such a blessing to the homestead gardener. The cooler weather is such a nice break from gardening in the blistering heat.
- A strong fall garden can also help make up for shortages from your main gardening season. I didn’t get my peas put in the garden before it got too hot this year, so I didn’t get any peas harvested. I plan to make up for that shortage by putting them in the fall garden.
- Harvesting more into the fall will help you save money on food, and help you make sure you have enough veggies to get you through winter without paying ridiculous grocery store prices. You can even extend your growing season more by installing cold frames or tunnels and get even more food before winter really hits. The fall garden is actually really important in protecting your family’s food security.
- You can usually save even more money on a fall garden, as plants, seeds, compost, and mulch are usually cheaper in the fall. Stores are usually trying to get rid of that year’s inventory, so they will offer most of these up at dramatic price drops. And if you grew some cool-season crops earlier in the year, you may have been able to save some of those seeds as well.
- The typical fall veggie garden also takes up much less room, so it’s easier to keep the area tended to. Weeding around smaller rows of peas, beans, spinach, and lettuce is so much easier than weeding around those giant zucchini or pumpkin plants!
- There are also typically fewer bugs to worry about in the fall. At that point, most of the main bugs have completed their life cycle, so they will be munching on your plants less.
- A lot of plants taste sweeter when grown in the fall. And the more cool-loving plants are less likely to bolt when grown in the fall. Growing some of these in the fall results in healthier harvests and better vegetables.
Planning your fall garden
Just like your main vegetable garden, your fall garden needs planning too. Decide your needs based on what you weren’t able to grow during the main gardening season.
Did you not get enough spinach? How about your radishes and beets? You can get more of some of the things that didn’t produce as well, by planting in your fall garden.
Of course, you won’t be able to start a fall crop of long-season veggies like tomatoes (unless you live in the tropics!), but there should be some fast growing vegetables that you can harvest before the frost really sets in. Succession planting is great to do in a fall garden, as you can stagger your harvests and get the most out of your garden space.
What to plant, and when?
To determine what you can plant and when, check your desired veggie’s days to harvest from the seed packet. Check The Old Farmer’s Almanac for your first average frost date. Using a tool like Time And Date, put in your first frost date, then subtract however many days an average harvest takes of that vegetable (from the seed packet). This will tell you the latest date you should plant that veggie.
If you were able to grow all the veggies you need, start thinking outside the box!
Does your soil need amending after the hard work it did over the summer? Plant a cover crop. Peas, beans, and legumes are nitrogen fixers, and will help put nitrogen back into your soil.
Need some garlic or onions? Both of these are great to overwinter. Garlic actually needs the cold weather to perform its best, and you can dine on green onions first thing in the spring.
Are you wanting to be more self reliant with your animal feed? Grow winter wheat, peas, oats, cereal rye, rye grass, clover, radishes, or forage turnips. Depending on the animals you have, you might have a few options that you didn’t think about before.
Fall gardening crops
1. Cover crops.
Cover crops are crops that you plant to cover the soil. They protect the soil from erosion and aid in weed control. Then when they die off, you either till them into the soil or “chop and drop”, or mow the plants down and leave them as mulch. Normally they have nutrient-fixing properties or help break up hard ground so they benefit the soil.
Peas, clover, and beans are nitrogen-fixing. They have nodules of nitrogen on their roots, and these transfer back into the soil as the plant decomposes. As a bonus, you can still harvest the beans and peas for yourself or for your livestock.
b. Grasses and grains.
Grasses like oats, wheat, and rye prevent the soil from erosion and compaction. They have long roots that break up and aerate the soil.
Most of these can also be used to feed your animals to reduce your feed bill. Oats and wheat produce grains that you can thresh to give to your animals, or use yourself.
You could even put animals like pigs or chickens in the garden when your cover crops are winding down, so they can clear it up for you some. They will help themselves to any leftover goodies, as well as deposit some of their own fertilizer in the garden. And tilling these plants into the soil in the spring will help improve soil health.
Brassicas, like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli do much better in the cooler weather than in the heat of the summer. These should be planted in the spring or fall in order to keep them from bolting (going to seed).
Keep in mind, some of these need quite a bit of time to mature, so just make sure you have enough time before winter really hits. In my area, these need to be planted in late July and August in order to get a crop.
Fall gardening brassicas will help give you food into the fall months, and also supplement as animal feed as well, when the veggies aren’t “pretty” enough for human consumption.
3. Root vegetables.
Lots of root vegetables, like carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets, do very well in the cooler weather. They actually get sweeter after a light frost, and it doesn’t seem to bother them as much if the leaves get a little frost damage. Above-ground plants, in comparison, usually die at the first hint of frost.
For example, with tomatoes, if you plant them just a little too early and they get a light frost at the end of spring, you will usually have to replace those plants. That happened to me last year. Root vegetables give plenty of greens to give to your animals (or eat yourself!), and they may even like the veggies too!
4. Leafy greens.
As long as you choose a fast-growing variety, lettuce and spinach are great choices for the fall garden. These tend to bolt and get bitter in hot weather, so the cooler weather is just better for them.
Kale and collards taste much better after they get a little frost. Kale really likes cold weather, and is very tolerant of it. Mustard greens and arugula grow fast but die in hard frosts.
Carrots are another good option, and can be stored through the winter very well.
5. Onions and garlic.
Onions are very cold hardy, especially if you mulch around them. You can still harvest them in winter, even under snow, as long as they are not frozen solid into the ground. And garlic needs nearly a full year to grow, so it has to over-winter with a thick mulch. Both onions and garlic are used both in cooking and in medicinal home remedies, so they are great to grow.
Fall gardening can be a very beneficial, last-ditch effort to get some good food growing. Although I’m sure you’re tired from the summer garden and all the accompanying summer chores, I hope you’ll take advantage of this last little bit of decent weather before winter hits. Have you done a fall garden? Are you going to this year?
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