Last Hurrah! – Fall Veggie Gardening

The heat of summer is definitely here.  The blazing sun and sticky humidity are enough to make you want to stay in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. It seems an odd time to be thinking about fall, but it is time to plant a few things in the garden so that you can have a last hurrah in the veggie patch.

Most people think that the only time to plant a vegetable garden is May. Those people are sorely mistaken. One of the most productive seasons in the garden is fall, and even early winter.

The cool-season crops — such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale — are surefire additions to the garden this time of year. These crops will thrive as the temperatures cool, and will even endure frost and light freezes. In fact, many of them have a milder, sweeter flavor after a frost or freeze because of a reaction that induces these plants to produce sugars after a cold snap.

Chard, beets, carrots and radishes are also common fall garden fare (radishes will need to wait until it is cooler, but the time is ripe for sowing fall beets and carrots right now). You’ll also want to wait until cooler weather to sow a crop of lettuce or spinach for the fall and winter.

Don’t think that fall planting is limited to cool-season crops, though. Many fast-maturing warm-season crops can be planted in late summer for late-season garden glory. These are convenient to fill in space vacated by early crops or by diseased plants that need to be removed.

Beans are a good candidate for late-summer planting, but you’ll need to make sure they are a fast-maturing variety. Bush beans are usually the quicker growers. Pole beans and lima beans usually take a longer period, so those don’t do as well later in the season.

It is also a possibility to squeeze in a late crop of cucumbers or summer squash as well. This can be good if your cukes and squash succumb to disease, squash vine borers or cucumber beetles. Planting late can often mean that you are missing the primetime for specific pests. You’ll probably have fewer problems with squash vine borer in the fall than you would in the summer.

It is even possible to squeeze in a late crop of tomatoes or peppers if you can find the plants.  These are nice to take over when the ones planted in May start showing their age or succumb to disease later in the season.

The key to fall planting is to know how many days it takes for the crop to mature. Check out the seed package or the plant tag — there should be a time to maturity on there. Just count backward from the first frost date (usually during Oct. 20-30 for most of our area). Be sure to add a few weeks to account for slower growing in cool weather and to allow for a reasonable harvest time.

For the cool-season crops, you don’t have to worry about frost, but you will want to get them grown to a harvestable size before a good freeze.  They’ll survive even past some light freezes, but they won’t grow too much.

You can give yourself a little more time if you plan on incorporating a season extension practice in the garden. Using a row cover fabric or constructing a low tunnel from fabric or plastic can give you several more weeks of growing time. It can be possible to enjoy a fresh tomato or green beans straight from the garden on the Thanksgiving table, or some fresh broccoli or kale at Christmas (if there aren’t any severely cold temps). But it all starts with a little planning in the heat of summer.

John Porter
Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator at Nebraska Extension
John Porter is the Urban Ag Program Coordinator for Nebraska Extension and Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, serving both as an extension educator and professor of urban agriculture. He specializes in urban agriculture and horticulture, especially in the areas of vegetable and fruit production for home gardens and urban farms and edible landscaping.
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