Right now, before you forget, put a rubber band around your wrist to remind you of one gardening task that cannot be postponed: Planting seeds for fall garden vegetables. As summer draws to a close, gardens everywhere can morph into a tapestry of delicious greens, from tender lettuce to frost-proof spinach, with a sprinkling of red mustard added for spice. In North America’s southern half, as long as seeds germinate in late July or early August, fall gardens can grow the best cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower you’ve ever tasted. In colder climates it’s prime time to sow carrots, rutabagas, and turnips to harvest in the fall. Filling space vacated by spring crops with summer-sown vegetables will keep your garden productive well into fall, and even winter.
Granted, the height of summer is not the best time to start tender seedlings of anything. Hot days, sparse rain, and heavy pest pressure must be factored into a sound planting plan, and then there’s the challenge of keeping fall plantings on schedule. But you can meet all of the basic requirements for a successful, surprisingly low-maintenance fall garden by following the steps outlined below. The time you invest now will pay off big time as you continue to harvest fresh veggies from your garden long after frost has killed your tomatoes and blackened your beans.
1. Starting Seeds
Count back 12 to 14 weeks from your average first fall frost date (see “Fall Garden Planting Schedule” below) to plan your first task: starting seeds of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale indoors, where germination conditions are better than they are in the garden. Some garden centers carry a few cabbage family seedlings for fall planting, but don’t expect a good selection. The only sure way to have vigorous young seedlings is to grow your own, using the same procedures you would use in spring (see Start Your Own Seeds). As soon as the seedlings are three weeks old, be ready to set them out during a period of cloudy weather.
If you’re already running late, you can try direct-seeding fast-growing varieties of broccoli, kale or kohlrabi. Sow the seeds in shallow furrows covered with half an inch of potting soil. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings germinate, then thin them. The important thing is to get the plants up and growing in time to catch the last waves of summer heat.
When is too late? The end of July marks the close of planting season for cabbage family crops in northern areas (USDA Zones 6 and lower); August is perfect in warmer climates. Be forewarned: If cabbage family crops are set out after temperatures have cooled, they grow so slowly that they may not make a crop. Fortunately, leafy greens (keep reading) do not have this problem.