Starting Your Garden
I spent a lot of time moving into new apartments or renting homes, so I was almost always moving in during the spring/ early summer and only able to start planting a garden in late summer/ early fall. I was delighted to learn that there were still many vegetables to be planted at that time of year. While renting a home in Michigan a few years ago, I had planted my fall vegetables and was surprised to see that my spinach survived the long, snowy winter and that I was able to harvest spinach early the next spring. That began my love of fall gardening.
Fall gardening is possible in Western, PA because of "Frost Tolerant Crops" and "Cool Temperature Tolerant Crops". The former are plants that are not injured by light frost, while the latter are injured by frost but intolerant of temperatures above 70 degree F. This means that those veggies that struggle in the hot sun of the summer will thrive in the early spring and in the fall, making them perfect for fall gardens.
In general, fall gardens are no different than spring gardens. If you had something planted in your garden from the previous season you might wait until it is done producing, remove it from the garden, re-fluff the soil and plant a new crop for the fall. If you are starting your first garden, be ready to prepare the area either by tilling up the ground and adding a layer of compost or by sheet mulching the area (adding layers of cardboard then garden soil and compost). Once the garden bed is prepared for planting decide on which plants you want to plant. Below is a chart of fall garden vegetables indicating when to plant and whether to plant seeds (s) or seedlings (SL).
Mid June to Early July
- cabbage (s)
- collards (s)
- turnips (s) *
Early July to August
- kale (s)
- carrot (s)*
- beet (s) *
- Swiss chard (s)
- broccoli (SL)
- Brussels sprouts (SL)
- cabbage (SL)
Mid July to September
- celery (s)
- spinach (s)*
- radish (s) *
- lettuce (s) *
Early Aug. to Sept.
- peas (s)
- collards (SL)
- kale (SL)
Early Sept. to October
- (sometimes as late as Nov., depending on local soil conditions)
Once you decide on what you want to grow and have the area prepared, begin planning your garden. A resource that I like to use is the "Kitchen Garden Planner" from Gardener's Supply Company. It is an on-line design tool that utilizes square foot gardening techniques to make the most of small garden beds. While you play with this design tool, think about the orientation of your garden bed in your yard in relation to the path of the sun. The design below shows a garden that I may plant in my backyard, taking into account that the garden bed is 3 feet by 6 feet and that it runs south to north in my yard. This helps me to plan for the taller plants to be grown on the north side of the garden, so that they are not shading out smaller plants.
Planting a fall garden is easy and fun. Wait for a cool morning or evening to plant your seedlings and seeds. Follow the instructions on your seed packets to be sure of the proper spacing for your seeds. Water them in well, keeping seeds wet for about ten days. You don't want your seeds to dry out once they begin germinating or they could die. After that, just make sure that your garden is receiving at least an inch of water a week.
* Vegetables listed above that have an asterisk next to them can be planted every two weeks (with in the planting range) so that there is a staggered harvest. This is called succession planting.
In general, you want to wait until your plants are mature to harvest. Think about what the vegetable looks like in the grocery store and wait until it looks like that to harvest! You don't want to harvest too soon or too late, as this can affect the taste of your vegetables. To make it easier, we can categorize these veggies into three groups: leaves, roots, and other.
- Swiss chard
Leaves can be harvested when they are small, for tender greens, or when they are at their full size. You can harvest leaves from the outside in. The plant will continue to grow from an inner core as you harvest leaves on the outer edge. Or you can harvest all of the leaves at once in a large bunch, if you have a recipe or party that requires lots of the veggie leaf.
Harvest turnips just after a light frost (for sweeter taste) but before hard frost. Smaller turnips will be more tender and sweet, but you can harvest any size. Don't forgot that you can eat the turnip greens!
Radishes are similar to turnips in that the smaller ones are tastier and do well in salads.
Carrots can be left in the ground for storage, if you don't plan to eat them right away, but should be dug up before the ground completely freezes.
Beets taste great harvested small, but can also be left to grow a bit bigger. I love mine at about two inches in diameter, really large beets tend to loose their flavor. You can eat these greens, as well.
For all of the roots, you can feel the "shoulders", the part that is at soil level or sticking out a bit, to determine the size of the root.
- Brussels sprouts
For cabbage and celery, you want to wait until you have a nice full head to harvest. Then you will remove the entire plant from the garden bed. Outer cabbage leaves can be composted and the inner head used right away or stored in the refrigerator. For celery, you take the entire plant while removing the roots.
For broccoli, you will get one good sized broccoli head in the center. Once this is harvested, leave the plant to grow, as you will get smaller side shoots to harvest.
Brussels sprouts grow under the leaves of the plant all along the stalk. When the sprout are a good size, you can remove the entire plant and pluck the sprouts, or you can take the sprouts as they appear harvesting handfuls at a time.
Harvest peas when they are plump and full. Then you can shuck the outer shell and eat the fresh inner peas.
Garlic that is planted in the fall is for harvest next summer!! So plant it in a spot where it will not be in the way of next year's garden. For garlic, I usually plant them in a designated area. Harvest will happen next summer, around late July. You will know that the plants are ready to be pulled when the leaves turn brown and die back. You can use the garlic right away or cure it and store it for later use.
Fall Gardening is really summer planting for a fall harvest. So enjoy your harvest!