Plan the Fall Garden


For those of us in northern CA it is hot! After a mild start to our summer the heat has set in. At this time of year we are outside early, hiding inside or by the creek, then outside again from about 5pm to dark.

It is always hard to wrap my head around the fall garden when the temps are above 100 F. But wrap we must. This is the time to consider your fall plantings and to get transplants started as well as direct sow root crops like carrots and beets.

If you leave your fall garden until the fall, it is too late! The goal is to have your cool season garden mid-production by the time cool weather arrives. If you leave it too late then you won't actually get to eat much during the cool season since the lack of light and cold temps will greatly reduce the growth of fall plants.

So how to establish cool season crops when the outside temps are soaring?

Here are my top hacks for a successful fall garden!

1. Start heading crops in July and August for September transplant. This includes broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, lettuce and kale. I have found the key to starting these in the heat is shade.

Consider building a permanent shade structure or set up shade cloth on temporary posts over your seedlings. Alternately, start your seedlings in the shade of a tree. I often cover the trays with row cover, or even an old bed sheet would work, to keep moisture in. Remove the cover once germination is well on its way but keep the crops under 30% shade cover or the partial shade of a tree.

2. Direct sow roots crops such as beet and carrot in early August. This will give the crops time to size up by October and then through the fall/winter you can dig up more beets and carrots as needed. Use the ground as your winter refrigerator!

My top tip to direct seeding in the heat is to use floating row cover, sometimes called frost protection cloth paired with drip tape. My garden beds are 3 ft wide and have 2-3 rows of drip tape per bed. I create a shallow trench along the drip tape, sprinkle my seed, then cover very shallowly with soil. Then I cover the bed with row cover laid directly on the ground.

The new seeds are watered by the drip tape that runs for 1 hr each day. The row cover keeps the moisture in the soil and we usually see excellent germination despite hot temps. With this method I actually leave the row cover on the garden bed for at least the next month. It serves to create a moist micro climate and growth is accelerated.

3. Direct sow turnips, fast growing greens like bok choy, arugula and cress and herbs like cilantro in August or early September. I use the same method outlined above but because these tend to grow more quickly I have more time to get them in the ground before the weather will hinder their growth.

4. Transplant the seedlings started in July and August by mid September for best results. I prefer to transplant these crops vs direct sowing them because they will produce better if given proper spacing in the garden. Adequate spacing is much easier to achieve with transplanting vs direct sowing.

I also know that veg crops like cabbage and broccoli are heavy feeders and require very fertile soil. By starting them in trays I can give them the "breakfast, lunch and dinner" they deserve through multiple transplanting into high quality potting soil and finally into the composted garden.

5. Factor your fall garden into your plan. I do this by keeping a portion of my garden fallow over the summer months. I use a heavy recycled billboard tarp to kill off the weeds and then peel that back and have a blank canvas to start my plantings in early August.

If you don't have the space for this then just decide which summer veggies are slowing down and slowly pull them out to make room for your fall plantings. By starting many fall crops as transplants you buy yourself time to get the soil ready for cool season crops.

I hope this helps you get ready for the fall/winter garden season! Under about 25 F winter gardening gets really hard and most plants, even the frost tolerant, will struggle. Folks in zone 8 and under will likely need to invest in further crop protection such as greenhouses and high tunnels.

For those of us in zones 9+ the fall and winter is becoming THE time to garden. With fewer pests, more moisture, lower temps and hopefully hibernating ground squirrels, the cool season can produce an abundance of edibles for your family.