Written by Linda Brandon, Guilford County Extension Master Gardener
When the weather is in the nineties outside as it has been recently, it may be difficult to think ahead to the cooler weather of fall, but trust us – it’ll be here before you know it. That’s why now is the time to be planning and planting your fall vegetable garden. After all, growing only the traditional summer vegetables – tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers – is like wasting perfectly good real estate for several months of the year. If you have a garden, you may as well make it work for you as long as possible.
Many popular veggies – carrots, cabbage, a huge variety of greens, and broccoli – thrive in the cooler fall and early spring months. In fact, the flavor of many of these vegetables is actually improved by a light frost. Remember, these plants, like other vegetables, need roughly 6 hours of sunlight daily, and they grow best in well-prepared soil. You can find more information on soil prep here if you’re just starting your garden now: http://guilford.ces.ncsu.edu/2012/02/lets-dig-in-soil-preparation-for-your-vegetable-garden/
If your gardening in the past has consisted of only the summer crops, you’ll be amazed at what you can grow as a second season planting: beets, broccoli, carrots, collards, some cucumbers, many kinds of lettuce, onions, spinach, and more all thrive in fall (and early spring) gardens. July and August are prime planting months in this area for fall vegetables; a detailed planting chart and much more excellent information can be found here: http://edgecombe.ces.ncsu.edu/files/library/33/Growing%20a%20Fall%20Vegetable%20Ga…pdf
Planting between July 15 and August 15 allows ample time for many of the fall crops to reach maturity and even a week or two past that will still be ample time to get a crop produced. (Our first killing frost is normally around October 15, although we might have light touches of frost before that date.) Root crops like carrots can be heavily mulched when hard frosts arrive; the semi-hardy plants need to be harvested before hard frost.
If you’re already growing summer vegetables, many of your plants are probably petering out by now; simply remove those fading plants along with any weeds that have grown during the summer, and check the condition of the soil in your beds. If you’re using raised beds, chances are good you won’t need to do any tilling, since you won’t have walked on the soil during the season. If you do see that your soil has become slightly compacted, you should loosen it to a depth of six to eight inches. If you fertilized heavily in the spring, a new application of fertilizer shouldn’t be necessary (a soil test is always the most accurate indication of what nutrients should be added); however, the incorporation of one to two pounds of a complete fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden bed might be a good idea if you don’t have time to wait for soil test results.
You can grow your fall veggies from seed or from transplants, depending on the crop. If you’re planting seeds, remember to plant them slightly deeper than you would in the spring; the soil moisture level is lower now, the soil surface temperature is higher, and the seeds need that precious moisture to germinate. Mulching your garden beds with an organic mulch two to three inches deep (whether spring, summer, or fall) is a terrific way to 1) suppress weed growth; 2) keep the soil moisture fairly stable; 3) prevent the hard crust that sometimes forms in our heavy clay soil during hot, dry weather; and 4) gradually add organic matter to the soil. These factors will go a long way toward getting your seedlings off to a healthy start.
As with summer crops, fall vegetables generally need about an inch of water weekly, whether in the form of rainfall or irrigation. The best way to determine how much water you’re applying when you sprinkle is to take an empty, short can (like a tuna can or cat food can), remove the lid entirely, and place the can on the ground in the path of the sprinkler. Water for one hour, and then measure the amount of water in the can. If it’s half an inch, then you know you need to water for two hours to apply an inch. If it’s ¼ inch, then you know it will take four hours to apply that needed inch. And generally, plants will develop healthier, stronger root systems if they are watered deeply and infrequently (only once a week rather than every day or two) rather than shallowly and frequently.
Although most crops we grow in fall vegetable gardens can withstand cool temperatures, you can extend your growing season even further with the addition of simply frost protection mechanisms. You can use floating row covers, burlap, individual cloches (just a fancy name for a protective covering) like milk jugs, paper caps, or more elaborate systems that allow an entire row to be protected. PVC piping can be inserted into the ground on one side of the bed, bent into a half-circle, and inserted into the opposite side of the bed to form an arched support; a few of these supports allow you to create a growing tunnel by putting plastic or other row cover fabric over the arches along the entire length of the row. You can learn a lot more about various season extension methods from this site, which, in turn, links you to many additional resources: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/chatham/ag/SustAg/SeasonExtensionResources.pdf
Don’t let your garden be lazy half the year; make it work for you by growing fall and spring crops in addition to traditional summer vegetables! You’ll be amazed at the bounty you can reap nearly year-round in our climate. To learn more, check out our Growing the Green Way presentation on Fall Vegetable Gardening here http://guilford.ces.ncsu.edu/events/. It will be presented at four Guilford County locations during August.