Fall Edible Gardening Tips

Fall is a great time to:

  • Install a new edible raised bed in good weather without a rush

  • Plant a fall crop of veggies

  • Super-charge an edible bed with composted manure for a spring harvest.

Get free garden coaching

When you buy a raised bed, soil, mulch, fertilizer, seedlings or other products and services from Deep Roots get free coaching for your fall gardening from the Deep Roots director David Murphy. Contact David at (773) 502-5600 and dmurphy[at]deep-roots-project.org

Filling space vacated by spring crops with summer-sown vegetables will keep your garden productive well into fall, and even winter. Beans, cucumbers, eggplant, musk melon, okra, peppers, pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, sweet potato, and tomatoes will all be damaged by even a light frost, but many other crops will survive. Fall, with its cooler temperatures and more abundant moisture, offers excellent growing conditions for many vegetables. As summer draws to a close, gardens everywhere can morph into a tapestry of delicious greens like tender lettuce, frost-proof spinach, swiss chard, collards, arugula, beets, kale with a sprinkling of red mustard added for spice. Plus, cooler temperatures will make your fall vegetables taste crisp and sweet. Learn more about frost-tolerant garden vegetables.

Basic tips for fall garden success

  • A thick cover of dense leaf mulch keeps veggies moist in the dry hot days of August. Lack of adequate water is the top cause of unhealthy weak plants and poor harvests. Mighty Moisture Mulch in our Deep Roots store keeps soil moist longer than other mulch we’ve tried and comes at a great price. Pick up mulch in buckets or we can deliver it to your garden for a small fee.

  • Fall is the best time to install new edible raised beds for a spring garden. Contact David for advice on cost, bed size, soil, mulch, delivery and best location in your yard.

  • 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 growing from seed in the northern part of the midwest.

  • Many seeds need to be started indoors. It’s easier to grow seeds indoors under grow lights in late July or August in a self-watering seed-starting tray with a capillary matte.

  • Buying seedlings is much easier and more reliable than growing from seed yourself for a late summer/fall garden.

  • Deep Roots has ordered fall seedlings of lettuce, frost-proof spinach, swiss chard, collards, kale and more from a local nursery. Contact David about placing your order early. Seedling take one to 2 weeks to grow big enough to plant in your garden.

  • Garden fabric (called “row cover”) can protect fall plants from light frosts by raising the temperature about 10 degrees. The fabric allows sun and rain through. Spread the fabric over your veggie beds on nights when temperatures fall below 32 degrees. Put a stone or brick on the corners to keep it in place.

  • Fall is the best time to super-charge existing and newly installed edible beds with a powerful and inexpensive organic fertilizer called composted manure. AFTER all your plants have been harvested and the stalks removed spread 2 to 3 inches of composted manure over your beds. My garden exploded with huge, fast growing, healthy veggies the spring after I spread composted manure for the first time.

  • If you don’t already have biochar blended in to your existing edible bed soil fall is the best time to add it. Deep Roots store soil always includes biochar.

  • To keep out weed seeds cover your dormant veggie beds with black landscape fabric.

  • Deep Roots will provide delivery of bulky garden products like raised beds an soil.

Contact David Murphy for questions and ordering from the Deep Roots store at (773) 502-5600 and dmurphy[at]deep-roots-project.org

Frost-tolerant vegetables

The more mature the frost-tolerant plant, the better able it is to withstand frost or freezing. Frost-tolerance varies between varieties of the same veggie. Greens like kale or spinach, especially those with wavy, curled, or textured leaves are generally hardier. Spinach, a super–very cold-hardy vegetable, is a tender-leafed crop that can be planted in very early spring, as well as in fall and winter. Spinach has similar growing conditions and requirements as lettuce, but it is more versatile in both its nutrition and its ability to be eaten raw or cooked. Learn more at the Old Farmer's Almanac and Botanical Interests.

A few snow-hardy vegetables can last at freezing temperatures until you harvest them if they are protected by a “hoop house” and “row cover” fabric. A spinach plant’s leaves may die during the winter, but the plant, itself, can survive and grow new leaves in spring. Other veggies that can stay alive in below freezing temperatures with proper protection are leeks, kale, collards, parsnips, lettuce, cabbage, turnips and chard.

Think soil first

Sustainable, natural, and safe healthy plants start with healthy soil. In addition to putting plenty of super nutritious food on your table, your fall garden provides an opportunity to manage soil fertility, and even control weeds. Rustic greens including arugula, mustard and turnips make great triple-use fall garden crops. They taste great, and their broad leaves shade out weeds. The nutrients they take up in fall are cycled back into the soil as the winter-killed residue rots.

If you have time, enrich the soil with organic leaf compost or composted manure (or both) to replenish micronutrients and give the plants a strong start. Modern organic gardening soil science strongly recommends adding 10-20% biochar into edible soils. Biochar added to the initial soil of a bed remains in the soil to increase fertility and water absorption while decreasing nutrient leaching. Biochar supports healthy soil microbes that feed the soil and the plants. If your existing edible bed is missing biochar, add some this fall. It takes months for biochar to work its magic.

You can also use vigorous leafy greens to “mop up” excess nitrogen left behind by spring crops (the organic matter in soil can hold quite a bit of nitrogen, but some leaches away during winter). Space that has recently been vacated by snap beans or garden peas is often a great place to grow heavy feeders such as spinach and cabbage family crops. When sown into corn stubble, comparatively easy-to-please leafy greens such as lettuce and mustard are great at finding hidden caches of nitrogen.

Try new crops in the fall garden

Several of the best crops for your fall garden may not only be new to your garden, but new to your kitchen, too. Set aside small spaces to experiment with nutty arugula, crunchy Chinese cabbage, and super-cold-hardy mâche (corn salad). Definitely put rutabaga on your “gotta try it” list. Dense and nutty “Swede turnips” are really good (and easy!) when grown in the fall. Many Asian greens have been specially selected for growing in fall, too. Examples include ‘Vitamin Green’ spinach-mustard, super vigorous mizuna and glossy green tatsoi (also spelled tah tsai), which is beautiful enough to use as flower bed edging.

As you consider the possibilities, veer toward open-pollinated varieties for leafy greens, which are usually as good as — or better than — hybrids when grown in home gardens. The unopened flower buds of collards and kale pass for the gourmet vegetable called broccolini, and the young green seed pods of immature turnips and all types of mustard are great in stir-fries and salads. Allow your strongest plants to produce mature seeds. Collect some of the seeds for replanting, and scatter others where you want future greens to grow. In some gardens arugula, mizuna and turnips naturalize themselves with very little help from the gardener, as long as a few plants are left to flower and set seed each year.

With broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and their close cousins, hybrid varieties generally excel in terms of fast, uniform growth, so this is one veggie group for which the hybrid edge is a huge asset. Breeding work is underway to develop better open-pollinated varieties for organic growers, but for now, trusted hybrids such as ‘Belstar’ broccoli, ‘Gonzales’ cabbage or ‘Snow Crown’ cauliflower are usually the best choices.

Finally, be sure to leave ample space for garlic, which is planted in October when you can smell winter in the air. Shallots, multiplying onions, and perennial “nest” onions are also best planted in mid-fall, after the soil has cooled. In short-season areas these alliums are planted in September; elsewhere they are planted in October.

Watering Fall Garden Plants: Keep ’Em Soaked

Even short periods of drought stress can put a nasty kink in the growth curve of most fall crops. Dry soil can be murder on slow-growing beets and carrots, and any type of setback can devastate temperamental cauliflower. Your best defense is to install a soaker hose before you set out plants or sow seeds. Try laying out the hose in various patterns and turning it on to get a good look at its coverage first. If the hose won’t stay where you put it, use short stakes or wire staples to hold it in place.

Keeping newly planted beds moist long enough for seeds to germinate is easy with leafy greens such as arugula, Chinese cabbage, collards, mizuna or turnips, because the seeds naturally germinate quickly, in five days or less. But beets, carrots, lettuce and spinach are often slower to appear, which means you must keep the seeded bed moist longer. Simple shade covers made from boards held above the bed by bricks do a great job of shielding the germination zone from drying sunshine, or you can shade seeded soil with cloth held aloft with stakes or hoops. You may still need to water by hand to make sure conditions stay moist, but shade covers can make the difference between watering once a day or four times as often.

Fall Vegetable Growing Guides

Growing Chinese Cabbage
Growing Arugula and Turnips for the Table
Golden Corn Salad (mâche)
All About Growing Garlic
All About Growing Broccoli


Parts of this “Fall Edible Garden Tips” page were excerpted from an article by Barbara Pleasant in Mother Earth News, August/September 2009. “Grow Your Best Fall Garden Vegetables: What, When and How.”