Escape the heat by thinking Fall gardening

It seems as though the sweltering heat of summer has most of us all in a lazy, hazy fog. I know I certainly avoid being outside as much as I can when the thermometer tops 90 degrees. Just sitting outside in the shade can leave you a sticky, sweaty mess.

There’s one way to beat the sultry summer blues, though. Think ahead to fall! Believe it or not, now is the time to start planning and planting the fall vegetable garden.

I would say that a majority of gardeners in our area are the type that run out and plant everything in May, then harvest through summer, allowing the plants to hang on until they fall to some disease or finally succumb to frost. These gardeners are missing the bounty that comes with the fall garden.

Fall crops extend the harvest well after the heat of summer.

What and when to plant for fall
Some crops, like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts will thrive in the cooler weather of fall and even survive well beyond frost. Other plants like beans, squash, and tomatoes will do well in the fall, but won’t survive frost. Plants like tomatoes and squash that are planted specifically for fall will well outperform those that are left to languish from the spring planting.

Starting plants for the fall is also easier than starting them for the spring. Since the temperatures outside are warm, there’s no need to start plants indoors under light. You can simply start them in pots outside in a place where they are protected from heavy rain.

The first step is to check out the seed packet or the plant label for the maturity date. For example, I have a packet of ‘Mammoth Red Rock’ cabbage seeds that I want to start for the fall. The packet says that it matures in 90 days.

Now, here’s where the math comes in. We need to add some time for the period of harvest. Let’s say that I’m planting cabbage that I want to harvest over a two week period, so I’m going to add 14 days. Since plants grow more slowly in cooler temperatures, I also need to add another 14 days for what we will call the “fall factor”. If we were starting a warm season crop like tomatoes, we would also need to add another two weeks for the possibility of frost. When we add up the days to maturity, the harvest period, and fall factor, we get a total of 118 days, or about 16 weeks.

We then look at a calendar to schedule when to start our cabbage plants. We need to look at a calendar and count backwards from the date in which we think the plant will die from frost or we want to finish harvesting. Cool season crops like cabbage can withstand several frosts, so we can say that we want to finish growing them three or four weeks after the first frost in the fall (which for my area in West Virginia is October 10).  If it is something that is frost tender, then you definitely want to use the first frost date as a hard and fast date for calculations.  To find your first frost date, visit the NOAA National Climactic Data Center.

To get the most out of your fall garden, I would suggest that you plant small plots multiple times throughout the rest of the summer until the last feasible time to plant the crop. You can extend these calendar dates, and even over-winter cold tolerant crops like spinach, kale, and the Cole crops by using a row cover fabric.

This article was first published on the North Carolina Extension Office blog.

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