It’s hard to believe during the hottest days of summer, but autumn is on its way. And although we often think of late summer as the height of the harvest season, by planting a second-season garden you can yield crops all the way into early winter. In fact, some varieties grow best during the milder days and cooler nights of fall. We’ve assembled a collection of hardy vegetables that thrive during the fall in most regions and can extend your harvest long after summer.
When to Plant: Find your average last frost date (The Old Farmer's Almanac offers an online calculator) and count backward from the seed’s average maturity period to figure the optimum planting time, adding a week or two for weather variations.
Best Late Summer and Fall Garden Crops
Peppery arugula is a mustard green also known as “rocket.” The fast-growing seeds can be direct-sown and will mature in about 40 days; stagger plantings weekly for a longer harvest period. Enjoy the greens in salads, pasta dishes or on pizza.
Beet seeds can be direct-sown in the garden 10 to 12 weeks before your region’s first fall frost. Regular watering and a layer of mulch will help plants get established during variable late summer temperatures. The beet greens are edible, and you can pick a few leaves for salads in the weeks preceding harvest without affecting the growth of the roots.
Late-season broccoli plants often produce bigger, better-tasting crowns than spring-sown plants exposed to summertime heat. However, you’ll need to get seeds in the ground soon to give plants the 12 to 14 weeks they need to mature before the average first fall frost in your area; garden centers may also have transplants available.
Hardy Brussels sprouts prefer cool weather, and the plants can usually survive a hard frost. To grow them from seed, look for hybrid varieties with a shorter growing season; ‘Bubbles’, ‘Oliver’ and ‘Royal Marvel’ will be ready for harvest after about 12 weeks. The sprouts at the bottom of the plant will mature first, and can be cut off the stem when they’re about the size of a walnut.
Carrots are easy to cultivate, and the plants can usually tolerate a light frost. Try fast-growing ‘Primo’, which matures in about 60 days, or ‘Little Finger’, a midget variety with 3- to 4-inch carrots that will be ready to dig in about 68 days. If temperatures turn cold early, baby carrots can be harvested and enjoyed even if they’re not fully mature.
Cruciferous collard greens’ seeds can be direct-sown in the garden about eight to 12 weeks prior to the first average fall frost date. Pick the outer leaves when they’re about 6 inches long, and allow the inner leaves to continue growing to extend the harvest. Row covers, cold frames or even milk-jug cloches can help cold-hardy greens last even under snowfall.
Eight weeks before the average first frost, plant onion sets 1-inch deep in well-drained soil. You’ll harvest scallions with slender bulbs and long, edible leaf stalks similar to the common variety sold in most grocery stores.
As pretty as it is delicious, the kale plant’s colorful, frilly leaves are an attractive addition to the late summer garden. After direct sowing, varieties such as ‘Red Russian’ and ‘Winterbor’ will be mature in about nine weeks—and taste even sweeter after a frost or two. Kale’s baby leaves can be picked as early as 30 days for smoothies and salads.
Fast-growing kohlrabi is a lesser-known member of the extensive cabbage family that grows best in cooler temperatures. Plan to harvest the round bulbs from direct-sown seeds in about 50 to 65 days. Kohlrabi can be steamed, baked, stir-fried, or sliced and served raw in a crudité platter; the leaves are edible, too, and can be added to salads or cooked like spinach.
Loose-leaf lettuces are among the easiest, fastest crops to direct-sow and grow. Most varieties will mature in about 45 to 60 days, and the baby leaves can often be picked in as little as 30 days. For a continuous harvest of fresh greens, do successive plantings a week or two apart. Try cold-hardy butterhead and crisphead varieties.
Parsnips are a good choice in regions with early frost and chilly temperatures, as those conditions cause the vegetable’s flavor to become sweet and nutty. The seeds are slow to germinate, so parsnips should be planted in time to give them 100 to 120 days to mature—or choose a faster-growing cultivar such as ‘Kral Russian’, an heirloom variety that matures in 75 to 86 days. Dig parsnips in late fall with a spading fork to carefully unearth the roots. Parsnips can also be covered with heavy mulch and overwintered to harvest in the spring.
Winter radishes grow quickly during fall’s cooler temperatures; try daikon, which matures in 60 to 70 days, or the ruby-skinned ‘China Rose’, which is ready to dig in about 52 days. Covered with heavy straw mulch, winter radishes can be left in the ground and harvested deep into the season.
Aptly named snow peas grow best in cool temperatures and can usually handle early snow and a light frost. The soil needs to be moist for the peas to germinate and thrive, so check and water regularly—especially if late-season daytime temperatures are hot. In regions with early cold temperatures, varieties such as ‘Short N’ Sweet’ or ‘Dwarf White Sugar’ will begin bearing in about 50 days.
Whether you favor smooth-leafed spinach or curly savoy varieties, spinach is a nutritious, easy crop to grow in the late season. Most varieties prefer about six weeks of cooler temperatures to thrive, so start seeds in mid-August and keep moist until plants are established for a fall harvest. Smooth-leaf ‘Olympia’ is a prolific variety that grows well in late summer and autumn in many regions. Protected by a layer of straw mulch, varieties such as ‘Winter Bloomsdale’ and ‘Giant Winter’ will overwinter in many climates.
Swiss chard is easily grown, and the white-stemmed cultivars are generally more productive and cold-tolerant than colored varieties. Try dependable ‘Fordhook Giant’, a fast-growing mammoth variety (plants can reach 2 feet in height) that matures in about 60 days. Chard can be steamed or cooked like spinach, and the smaller leaves are tasty in salads.
Successful Second-Season Planting
• Make room for new late-season plants by pulling out any varieties that are no longer performing well, taking care to remove stems and roots.
• Prepare the late-season garden bed by loosening any compacted soil and digging in organic matter.
• When an early frost is predicted, cover plants overnight with woven fabric to provide additional protection of 2 to 5 degrees.
• For faster gratification, choose quick-growing varieties that go from seed to table in 40 days or less, such as arugula and lettuce.
• Select fall or winter varieties of seeds when available, or look for cultivars with earlier maturing dates.
• For the quickest harvest, check your garden center for end-of-season discounts on vegetable transplants.
• Young plants can also be protected from early frosts with season-extending row covers, cold frames or straw mulch.
How Low Can You Go?
If you live in a cold climate with early frosts, you can still enjoy a late-season harvest with these extremely hardy vegetable plants:
• Beets, carrots, Swiss chard, lettuce and parsnips can all tolerate a light frost (28 to 32 degrees).
• Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, snow peas and radishes will usually handle temperatures that dip to the upper 20s.
• Collard greens and kale can survive mid-20 degree temperatures, and because the plants produce natural sugars as a defense against the cold, they often taste sweeter and more flavorful after a hard frost.
Eliza Cross is the author of eight books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things To Do With Beans. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening, good food, simplifying and saving money at Happy Simple Living blog.