It’s time to stop thinking of autumn as the time to wrap up the garden—a handful of vegetables can be planted now and will grow slowly through winter in mild climates or go dormant until the following early spring in colder climates. Come spring, they will start growing and be ready to harvest for a delicious superearly crop.
Besides kick-starting the spring harvest season by many weeks, fall-planted vegetables offer other advantages. Fewer pests are around in winter to attack these vegetables, and winter soil is usually consistently moist, allowing for good seed germination.
The key to fall planting success is to choose the right vegetables and protect them through the winter in cold areas. How you go about this depends on where you live. In any climate, preparing the soil well by adding compost before planting will ensure growing vegetables have adequate nutrition.
Pacific Northwest and West Coast: Moderate temperatures allow for great harvests of greens and cool weather-loving brassicas in late winter and spring. However, winter rains can cause problems with diseases and slugs, so it’s necessary to take protective steps such as growing in raised beds; protecting plants with cold frames or row covers; and controlling for slugs (learn how: Organic Slug Control Methods).
Coastal South, Gulf Coast, Desert Southwest: In these hot climates, fall planting for a winter harvest is preferred over a spring planting due to the cooler temperatures and more consistent rainfall. Vegetables that prefer cool seasons, such as broccoli, spinach and peas, can only be planted now because the spring and summer weather gets so hot so fast.
Rest of the country: Elsewhere, fall planting for a spring harvest is a bit of a gamble, because cold temperatures, snow and thawing can spell disaster for some vegetables. However, my experience—and that of other local gardeners—is that we’ve been able to grow many crops consistently by seeding them in fall and harvesting them in March and April the following year, well ahead of our neighbors. What follows are some of the vegetables you can try in a colder climate and the best ways to grow them. Using raised beds and some form of winter protection is necessary in cold climates. Floating row covers, cold frames, mulches or a consistent snow cover are the best ways to protect young plants over the winter.
Best Plants for Fall Planting
Garlic: Garlic is one of the few vegetables that is usually planted in fall. Garlic grows best planted in October or November in most areas. In northern climates, mulch the beds around December 1 with a 4- to 6-inch-thick layer of straw. Although not ready for harvest in spring in some areas (usually garlic is harvested in June or July in the North), garlic is still an excellent crop to put in the ground this fall.
Onions: If you live in the South or West, fall is the time to plant sweet onions such as ‘Vidalia’ and ‘Texas Grano’. Like garlic, onions are harvested in late spring and early summer. Scallions make a nice alternative to onions for northern gardeners. Plant scallions in fall and protect them with cold frames or row covers in winter to enjoy scallions in early spring.
Spinach: Spinach gets its own category apart from other greens because it’s simply that important as a fall-seeded and spring-harvested crop. Plant spinach now, then cover the beds in November with a row cover to protect the young seedlings. Check them at first signs of a thaw in March or April and savor the tender, sweet taste. ‘Winter Bloomsdale’ is a variety definitely worth trying.
Greens: Mesclun mix, mâché, lettuce and other specialty greens grow well when seeded in fall. There are two ways to grow these: Sow seeds early enough so the greens emerge, then protect the young plants over winter as recommended for spinach; I’ve also had some success preparing a raised bed, sowing seeds late in October or November and letting the ungerminated seeds sit in the soil until spring. This is precisely what nature does when it self-sows crops such as cilantro, lettuce and ground cherries. These always seem to have seedlings popping up in spring all over the garden. In a mild, wet climate the seed may rot, but in cold winter climates the seed lies dormant until spring when conditions are right for growing. I’ve noticed seeds planted this way germinate at the exact right time, and you get plants ready to harvest weeks before your spring-sown crops.
Brassicas: While most forms of broccoli and cauliflower are traditionally harvested in fall (in warm climates) or summer (in cooler climates), some varieties are suitable for overwintering. Plant these varieties in fall and they will grow slowly through the winter and mature in spring in mild, but not warm, winter climates such as some mid-Atlantic states and the Pacific Northwest. ‘Purple Sprouting’ broccoli and ‘Purple Cape’ cauliflower are two overwintering varieties to try.
Root crops: Beets, carrots and radishes all can be planted in fall. It’s important to get them in the ground and growing a month or so before the cold weather hits. For radishes, with a little protection in fall you can eat these over the holidays. For beets and carrots, the young plants will survive the cold in northern climates and grow slowly in mild winter climates for a harvest in early spring. The key difference between fall-harvested and spring-harvested beets and carrots is their sweetness. You’ll be amazed at how sweet spring carrots taste. ‘Napoli’ is a good overwintering carrot variety, and any of the baby beet varieties work well. Be sure to harvest early in spring before these biennials send up a flower stalk and start to taste bitter.
Winter Squash and Peas: While they’re not among the most common plants seeded in fall for a spring harvest, some gardeners have had success with peas and winter squash sown late and allowed to germinate at the first hint of spring. Think of the pumpkin plant growing out of the compost pile in spring, and you’ll know how tough these seeds can be.
—Adapted from the National Gardening Association