As the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to turn, you might think it’s time to close up shop on your garden. Gardening provides a number of valuable health benefits, from stress relief to better brain health and1 better nutrition.2 It also inspires better exercise.3
Growing your own food allows you to harvest produce fresh from the garden, likely uncontaminated by insecticides and pesticides, while cutting your grocery bill and reducing your risk of depression.4 In a time when many people spend hours indoors behind a desk each day,5 gardening offers an invaluable way of achieving sensible sun exposure and increasing movement.
A study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports6 concluded a “regular dose of gardening can improve public health,” and noted it was associated with reduction in depression and anxiety, while increasing satisfaction and quality of life. You don’t have to give up these benefits during the fall months when you plant a garden of vegetables that thrive in cool weather.
The Annual National Gardening Survey7 reports gardening in America is at an all-time high with 77% of Americans participating. The number participating in container gardening is also rising.
Consider using some of the strategies outlined below to increase the harvest you get from your garden, whether it’s in the ground or in containers. Planting during the fall months may increase your harvest with little additional effort when you use low-maintenance plants and cover crops to prepare your garden for spring.
Plan a bountiful low-maintenance fall harvest
There are several considerations as you plan your vegetables for fall. Cooler temperatures help make your fall vegetables tastier and some can be harvested well after the first fall frost. As you’re planning, it’s important to consider the frost date in your geographical area.
You need the average date of the last spring frost and the first fall frost. You can begin by first finding your hardiness zone on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service8 and comparing it to a list of average frost dates kept by the Garden Tower Project.9
This information will give you the average dates. Freeze temperatures will be classified based on their effect on plants. For instance, a light freeze occurs between 29 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and 32 degrees F. This will kill tender plants, while a severe freeze occurs at 24 degrees F and colder, which may cause heavy damage to most plants.10
The time until the first frost is the amount of time left in the growing season in your geographical area. While there are some plants that continue to thrive after a mild frost, and those you plant to establish roots in the fall but harvest in the spring, the majority of your fall harvest will happen by the first frost.11
The plants you choose to place in your fall garden will also depend upon the amount of sunlight they require. This does not mean the number of hours the sun is in the sky in your area, but rather how much direct sunlight the plants get each day. Those vegetables that are shade tolerant thrive in three to four hours of direct sunlight and include arugula, kale, spinach and Asian greens.12
Soil temperature is among the list of considerations as you choose plants for a fall harvest. The topsoil temperature will fall quickly in late summer and early fall as the air temperatures are also falling.13 Temperature is important for seeds to germinate and establish a root system. Some vegetables won’t germinate if the soil is too warm; others don’t germinate when the soil is too cold.
Your best fall garden vegetable choices
As described in this short video, you may make the most of even a small garden by taking advantage of areas after you’ve harvested an early summer planting. Consider grouping your fall garden into three groups as described to increase your harvest and provide plenty of produce through your first hard frost.
Group 1 vegetables will sprout in warm soil when the seeds are kept moist. Consider sowing directly into your garden before several days of wet weather or keep the ground moist by watering.
Peas — These are high in vitamin K, manganese and vitamin B1 and provide the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin known to promote vision.14
Collard greens — One cup contains 308% of the daily value of vitamin A and 58% of vitamin C with only 49.4 calories.15
Leeks — One cup of this flavor-packed vegetable delivers a combination of flavonoids and sulfur nutrients with 29% of your daily value of vitamin K.16
Beets — One cup has 58 calories with 442 grams of potassium and 148 micrograms of folate, two important nutrients to your overall health.17
Kale — This leafy green winter vegetable is high in fiber and potassium and is a tasty addition to your salad or smoothie.18
Radishes — This sometimes-spicy addition to your salad is high in fiber, vitamin C and potassium.19
Group 2 vegetables will sprout in cool soil, but in most hardiness zones, once the soil is cool enough to sprout, the growing season is too short. Consider sprouting indoors or in a shady area of the garden, transplanting to a sunny area once the plant has established one true leaf.
Chinese cabbage — This ranks No. 2 overall in the CDC’s list of powerhouse fruits and vegetables.20
Radicchio — One cup of this leafy red vegetable has 102 mcg of vitamin K, 121 mg of potassium and an estimated glycemic load of 1.21
Spinach — A 100 gm serving of spinach provides you with 28.1 mcg of vitamin C, 30 mg of calcium and 167 mg of potassium.22
Lettuce — Popular foundation for most salads, lettuce is low in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. The vegetable is high in calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc and thought by ancient people to possess medicinal properties.23
Escarole — This leafy green vegetable is slightly bitter and may be served raw, grilled or cooked. It provides more vitamins and minerals by weight than iceberg lettuce and is high in vitamin A and C, fiber and calcium.24,25
Parsley — Often added to enhance the flavor or presentation, parsley is also rich in vitamin K and flavonoids that may help block damage by heterocyclic amines that develops in meat grilled on high heat.26
Group 3 vegetables appreciate cool soil temperatures. The taste of the vegetables will improve after the first one or two mild frosts. They may also be planted in the early spring and then replaced with a summer crop before replanting in the fall.
Arugula — Also known as salad rocket or garden rocket, this member of the brassica family of vegetables is high in fiber, rich in chlorophyll and high in vitamin K.27
Cilantro — Related to parsley, cilantro may be eaten raw or cooked. It may help prevent damage from heterocyclic amines and photoaging. It has high levels of antioxidant carotenoids.28
The turnip — This white-skinned root vegetable makes an excellent addition to soups and stews. It is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C.29
Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) — This mustard green has a slightly peppery flavor and is a good source of Vitamins A, C and K.30 It is also high in phenols31 associated with antiaging effects,32 anti-inflammatory properties33 and antioxidant activities.34
Succession planting expands your harvest
Succession planting or succession cropping is the term used when gardeners plant one crop immediately after the first has been harvested or when they plant the same vegetables in staggered weeks. For instance, if a farmer staggers planting over two to four weeks may extend their harvest into the late summer and early fall.35
By planting the same or a different crop in your garden once the first has been harvested you may fill in the gaps and maximize the amount of food you grow. In some cases, you may want to start your seeds indoors before harvesting the first crop to ensure a good harvest before a hard frost.
Early potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic and many salad greens may be successfully succession planted.36 Once the first crop has been harvested, add a thin layer of compost to boost the nutritional value of the soil and then either transplant seedlings or sow seeds directly into the soil.
Succession planting is also called second planting and requires quick work at the end of the summer as shorter days and cooler air temperatures may slow growth. Add compost to the beds between plantings to replenish the soil. If you have space, consider planting varieties of the same plant that matures at different times, which will also extend your harvest.37
Cover crops aren’t just for large farms
Cover crops are plants typically grown for the benefit of the soil in your garden rather than what it may provide for your table. Farmers use them to manage soil erosion, suppress weeds and build soil fertility. Cover crops also help promote soil biodiversity, which in turn improves the nutritional value of your food.38
Generally, cover crops are grasses sown during the offseason to ready the soil for your upcoming garden. Planting a cover crop in the late fall helps reduce the amount of water that drains off the field during the fall and spring rains. The roots allow water to filter into the ground and provide nutrients to the soil.39
Traditionally, when your garden is ready for planting, you may mow the cover crop and allow it to dry out.40 Tilling is not necessary as you just need to run a rake over the top and plant directly in the garden since the dying cover crop acts as a mulch layer.
Examples of some cover crops include red and sweet clover, buckwheat, rye and peas. In most regions of the U.S. it’s best to plant right after you’ve harvested as most cover crops will need four weeks to establish their roots before a hard frost.41
The Organic Growers School42 recommends choosing your crop depending upon how long it’s likely to remain in place. For long periods, it’s recommended that you combine smaller cereal grains such as oats, barley or rye with a nitrogen-fixing legume like peas or vetch. For shorter times, consider green manure crops that out-compete weeds and supply food for soil microorganisms such as buckwheat and field peas.
Planting and caring for your fall garden
As you consider the timing of your planting, check your first fall frost and count back 12 to 14 weeks. Start your seeds indoors for your fall garden to improve germination and be sure there’s room in the garden when your initial crops are ready to be transplanted as seedlings. Adding organic compost43 will help give your plants a strong start, especially if you are succession planting after another crop.44,45
Organic matter in the soil holds on to nitrogen so using leafy greens may help soak up the nitrogen left behind by your spring crop.46 Fall is a great time to try out new planting, for both your table and the possibilities it holds to enrich your garden. As you are planning your fall space, remember to leave an area for garlic and onions after the soil is cooled and has been harvested in October.
Most fall plants require a bit more water than others. Even a short period of dry soil may be a setback to growth in your beets, carrots and green leafy vegetables. To keep the soil moist and the weeds down, consider adding a thick layer of organic mulch that could include fresh grass clippings, hay or even sheets of newspaper to block the light and keep the soil cool and moist.47
Using these strategies, you’ll get a greater harvest from your backyard garden or edible landscape. This helps cut your grocery bill and ensures the food you’re eating is fresh and healthy.