Four Practices for a Successful Fall Garden
Second Chance To Harvest!
Did you miss your chance to plant spring crops because of rain or cold weather? Or maybe you planted but your garden was overtaken by weeds? Don’t worry, because you have another chance to grow and harvest by planting a fall garden!
There are a lot of good reasons to plant a fall garden: a long harvest period; lots of produce to stock your freezer for winter; higher quality crops because of the cooler temps at harvest time; and pests tend to be less of a nuisance. In the Midwest, the main planting season for fall gardens generally runs from July 20 through the month of August. Please consult the fall planting calendar for the best planting dates for the individual crops.
Successful fall gardening requires the reversal of some of our spring vegetable gardening practices. Instead of snow or late frosts during the first few weeks of tender growth, your plants are faced with high heat and drying winds. Therefore, you have to nurse your plants through the hot weather until the cooler days of autumn bring some relief. Successful fall gardening requires the appropriate methods of: mulching, watering, plant selection, and time of planting.
1. Mulching / Ground Prep
Mulching your garden is important for a variety of reasons. Not only does it keep the weeds away, mulch also acts as a temperature and moisture buffer for the soil, moderating the extremes.
The best mulch to use is straw, cotton burr compost, leaf mulch, or glass clippings. Wood chip mulch isn’t a good option because it ties up nitrogen in the soil that your plants need to grow.
Before you lay down your mulch, however, you’ll need to prepare the ground. First, remove any plant residue such as weeds or old crops. Then, loosen the soil using a tiller, garden fork or hand cultivator. If the soil is hard from excessive summer heat, water before turning the soil.
When your plants are young, only mulch to the first leaf. As the plants get bigger, increase the depth of the mulch until it keeps weeds subdued and the soil damp. Do not mulch the area where you planted seeds. Wait until these crops have grown to at least 4″ before you mulch.
Using proper watering methods is imperative to a successful fall garden. Newly planted seeds have to stay moist in order to germinate. This means that you may need to water your garden 1-2 times a day when you first plant.
Use a hose or watering can with a fine mist setting so that you don’t flood the seeds or create a crust on the soil. After seeds have sprouted and plants are 2″ or taller, switch to watering deeper, less often.
Normally your garden needs 1” to 1.5” of water per week in the summer. Try to apply this in 2 waterings per week, which will encourage deeper root growth, making the plant hardier and more drought resistant. A final point on watering is that natural rainfall should not be relied on to provide the water for your garden. You may get lucky and have consistent, sufficient rainfall, but you will most likely not get rainfall at the proper time and the plant’s growth will not be optimal.
A good rule of thumb is that younger plants need more frequent and shallow watering while older plants need less frequent and deeper watering.
3. Plant Selection
Many of the same “cool season” crops that you planted in spring, can be planted again for fall. Long-season, hot weather loving plants, like okra, melons and pumpkin, will not have enough time to produce a harvest if planted now.
You may try peas, summer squash, green beans and even some short-season corn with varying success. You may end up with a great harvest if the weather is right and the frost is not early.
If possible, do not plant your fall crops in the same place you planted them this spring. Rotating crops reduces the risk of a disease being passed on. Since vegetables are not all in the same family, they are susceptible and immune to different diseases and pests. Therefore, plant you beans where you had your cabbage, your spinach where you had your potatoes, you cabbage where you had your early sweet corn, and so on.
Here’s a full list of dependable fall crops:
4. Timing of Planting
There are proper times for planting all vegetables. Some vegetables are more flexible in their requirements than others. The first thing you should do is find out when your Average Last Frost (ALF) date is.
Next, check the extended forecast and try to pick a time when temps are below 90 degrees. If that’s not going to happen, go ahead and plant your seeds and transplants by the first week of August.
Take extra care of transplants and even place them in partial shade if extreme heat is in the forecast. Note that some quicker-growing seeds, such as lettuce, radishes and spinach can wait to be planted until temps cool down a little. Longer-growing crops such as peas, carrots, broccoli and cabbage will need to be planted on time in order to get a harvest, even if its hot outside.