Our growing season is short, just over 100 days. It seems that with most plants we have just one shot. However, to use succession planting for a fall garden has been a goal of ours for many years. We started experimenting with it pushing the boundaries for planting a second crop, aka a fall garden in the northern climate. We have had lots of failures, where an early heavy frost abruptly ended the growing season. But we also have had some success. Here we share some of it and invite you to try it with us.
The Four Season Farm in Maine, owned and operated by writers Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman. The farm produces vegetables year-round. Eliot Coleman developed amazing techniques for a fall, and even winter, harvest. In his book The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production he describes his methods. A good read for anyone who wants more than just one crop per season.
We are far more north than the Four Season Farm is, our winter days are too cold for winter harvest. But we can grow more than just one crop, too. The Jungle Farm, just north of us, plants spinach out in the open fields at least three times a year. In April, June, and in the fall, protected with some straw for an early spring crop.
The Markerville Berry & Vegetable U-Pick Farm is another inspiring example. They sow some lettuce, spinach, romaine, radishes, and onions right till September to have a constant fresh supply. So you see, we can grow some crops at least twice a year.
Things to consider when planting a fall garden
1. How long of a season is left? What will still mature before the frost hits the ground? If 30 days are left, you can still grow things that will mature in 30 days.
2. How long does the plant need to mature? A seed package tells you the days to maturity. Note though, that many seed packages have the days to maturity from a transplanting time, meaning that you need to add 3-6 weeks to it, to get a mature seedling to transplant.
3. How hardy is the plant you are planting? It is good to go with plants that do not mind a bit of a frost for the fall crop. Plants react very differently to frost. For example, spinach, kale, lettuce, etc are cold tolerant. That means we can grow spinach much longer than tomatoes that do not tolerate any frost.
4. What can or needs to be grown over winter? Garlic is best planted in the fall. Also, for years, we have been growing successfully overwintering spinach.
When to plant what for a fall garden
In order to be able to grow a second crop, the first has to be planted early. For example, kohlrabi or cauliflower needs about 14 weeks from seed to harvest. The cabbage family plants can tolerate some frost. The first crop was started according to the schedule in mid-March and is getting ready for harvest at the end of June, all depending on the weather conditions of course.
Having new seedlings ready to plant into the available spot makes planting a fall garden possible. Count 14 weeks back from the first frost day. Our first frost is September 7, so we can start a second crop at the beginning of June.
Since cabbage family plants are heavy feeders, make sure that your soil is enriched with enough compost to grow a second crop. Or grow a fall crop of peas in the cabbage family plant bed, and plant the kohlrabi or cauliflower somewhere else where space becomes available.
Peas can be planted a second time too. For that grow an early variety, 50-55 days. We have grown Tom Thumb twice, using the first peas (seeds) to plant again, and they grew. Tom Thumb only reaches 8 to 9 inches in height and is perfect for container or small space gardening, growing it twice gives you a bigger harvest.
Fast-growing plants like radishes and lettuce can be planted at any time as long as there is still some time left before the frost slows down the growth. Radish needs 4 weeks, lettuce 7-12 depending on the variety, and if you are just intending to use only the leaves or the mature plant.
Spinach also needs 7 weeks, however, if the weather is hot and dry spinach will bolt without producing much. We plant spinach if possible in August usually after the garlic is harvested, making sure the plants are established and can continue to grow in spring. We also might get a fall crop out of the plants before winter, however, our aim is an early spring harvest. Read more about growing overwintering spinach here.
Next spring the spinach will be very early and usually done by June. Now is a good time to have squash or cucumber plants ready to plant in the same bed. They can be planted with the spinach since squash needs some time before it uses all the ground space. Again, make sure the bed is mulched heavily to have enough nutrients for those heavy feeders.
Garlic is planted in late September. Read more about growing garlic here.
Summer is also the time to start thinking about the winter garden indoors. We grow food in the winter indoors and need to start planting in the summer. Most seeds need about a month to become a good seedling.
How to plant a fall garden
Preparing the garden for a second crop will not be the same as it was in spring. If you wait till all the crops are done and you can start anew, it might be too late for planting anything. Use the little spots that become available.
Since it is warm and most likely dry, make sure the ground is moist before planting seeds or seedlings. Bigger seeds are good to sprout first, so they germinate faster.
Just like in spring, for the second crop, have seedlings ready to plant, as I mentioned before.
As always in a northern garden, it’s all about trying it out. You never know, it might just be a great year for another crop. Hope this encourages you to start planting a second crop for a fall garden in a northern climate and/or short growing season.
What are you growing in your fall garden? Please share in the comments.
Inspiring books for winter gardening: