You may be picking the last of your tomatoes and cucumbers right about now, but did you know the harvest doesn’t have to end yet? Fall vegetable gardens can be as productive (and fun!) as those planted in spring and early summer. If you live in a hot climate, you can put in a second crop of heat lovers such as beans in mid-summer for fall harvest. But even in less balmy parts of the country, many short-season crops, such as radishes, broccoli, and most types of greens, can be planted in mid to late summer for autumn bounty. These hardy vegetables don’t mind a chill, so they keep going right until a hard freeze. If you only have a balcony or deck, some veggies, such as lettuce or Swiss chard, can be grown in pots and window boxes. You can mix them in with fall flowers such as pansies and chrysanthemums for a pretty, edible container mix.
Time it right.
Read seed packages or plant labels to determine “days to maturity,” which tells you how long you need to grow specific crops. Then check with your local university co-op extension service (find yours here) to find the average first frost date for your area. Count backwards from that date to figure out the latest possible time you can plant. For example, if your average first frost is October 15, and you want to plant greens, many mature in 30 days so the latest date for planting is September 15. Remember, frost dates are averages; sometimes, the season lasts longer, sometimes not!
Pull out scraggly summer crops.
If everything is healthy and producing in your garden, leave it be. But chances are some vegetables are past their peak. If your tomatoes are down to a few brown leaves and flowers but no maturing fruit, pull them out (you also can pick any green tomatoes and let them ripen off-vine). Summer squash probably is winding down, too. Also, take out anything that’s been struggling all season from bugs or disease; it’s not going to get any better! Leave cool-season crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, in place to finish maturing.
Stick with transplants or fast-maturing crops.
Transplants are your best bet for crops that are too late to plant from seed, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, so check your local garden center. Super-quick crops you can plant from seed include beets, turnips, and radishes, which are ready in as little as 25 days, and lettuce, which is ready in about a month. Other fast-growing greens include spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collards, and kale. In fact, most types of collards and kale last until a hard freeze. Some kale varieties overwinter and green up again next spring, so don’t be too eager to yank your plants out at the end of the growing season when you're doing fall clean-up.
Keep up with watering and weeding.
Autumn still has hot and dry days, so make sure you’re giving the new plants plenty to drink. Both seeds and transplants need steady moisture to help them establish. Greens especially prefer to be kept moist as they sprout. Pull weeds as soon as you see them because they compete for moisture and nutrients with the plants you do want. It’s also better to keep up with weeds every day or so and not let things get out of hand.
Plan for next year.
Some crops, such as garlic, must be planted now for harvest next spring and summer. Hardneck garlic grows long stems or scapes in the spring, which you also can harvest before the bulbs are ready in mid-summer. Softneck types are more suited to warm climates. Either way, separate the cloves and plant pointy-side up about 6 inches apart and a few inches deep; they may sprout but the crop won’t be ready until next spring. Fall also is a great time to plant perennial herbs such as thyme, chives, sage, and oregano.
Keep a journal.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will be super-handy next spring. Save seed packages and labels and tape them in a notebook. List where you got them in case you want to buy more next year, and how they did, especially anything that wasn’t worth your time. Jot down other details such as first and last frost dates for the year. Learning from what worked (or didn’t work!) will make next year’s harvest even better.
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