Gardens are not just for summertime, you can also garden in the fall and in the winter. Fall gardening is actually my favorite time to garden, the temperatures are cooler making it more comfortable to be outside and the weeds don’t grow as fast or prolifically as they do in the summer. The fall garden does require extra planning though… and extra watering, and by the time August rolls around most people are just so burnt out on their summer garden and preserving/using it’s bounty that they don’t even want to think about starting a whole new garden. But it is possible! .. and very doable, and when November and December arrive and you’re harvesting delicious greens or parsnips or fresh parsley to enrich and enliven your holiday meals you’ll be glad you took the extra time to plant a fall garden!
Firstly, you must needs know the coldest temperatures that your location drops down too, that way you know which plants will survive through your winter and which ones won’t, you get this information from a plant hardiness zone map.
We live in the middle of the southeastern most tip of West Virginia in zone 6b, which means that, on average, temperatures can dip as low as -5F in any given winter…and they dipped to -4F the first winter we lived here, but last winter the lowest low that we saw was only 2F.
I know of only 4 crops that are hardy enough to live through our winters: Spinach, Mache (also known as Vit or Corn Salad), Cilantro, and Parsley
We’ve tested this for several winters in a row, purposely leaving crops out there to see which would survive and which would not and everything dies except for the above four crops. Now there are other crops like Swiss Chard for example and the different types of Kale, that die back when the extreme cold hits (usually in January) but then when the first tiny bit of warmth begins to show in early March they are the first to start to put out new leaves giving you very early spring greens!
I usually plant my fall crops where I had summer potatoes, onions, and garlic planted…and then later on where the waning summer snap beans and tobacco were planted…and this year I’ll be making up for tomato failure (we got some, but it’s just been so WET that they didn’t do well at all..reminds me of the summer of 2008, it was very wet then too and the tomatoes did bad…the economy also took a giant crap that year, so I imagine it’ll be the same this year too…) by pulling out ALL 15 of my dead/dying tomato plants and planting an extensive fall garden. As you pull out dead or dying summer crops also pull out the weeds and then quickly dig in some compost and a bit of blood meal and bone meal and plant a fall crop, just make sure you keep it well watered not letting the seedlings get baked by late summer heat.
What to plant when (according to my zone 6b):
Key: The ones in red are for that time period only, the ones in green can be sown till mid september
Mid July- Early August
- Peas – had the most success with sugar snap peas, green shelling peas don’t seem to do well as a fall crop, at least not for me anyhow
- Fava Beans – these are often overlooked in american gardens but they are extremely tasty and VERY cold tolerant for a bean, will survive temperatures down to 15F without dying. They take about as long as peas to mature so planted at the end of July you’ll get a harvest before the serious cold sets in but they don’t typically like temperatures over 80F, our summer temperatures rarely get over 80F but if yours do make sure to keep them well watered and plant them somewheres in part shade, then once the leaves drop in fall they will get full sun.
- Fall snap beans – Provider seems to have slightly more cold tolerance than the rest
- Lettuce – Black Seeded Simpson, and Four Seasons are good here because they tolerate heat well but will mature very rapidly once the chilly days begin in September, Buttercrunch is the most cold tolerant lettuce that I know of and one of my favorites
- Beets – Flat of Egypt is the only type I plant, planted during this time it will mature just as the first light frosts begin to hit in October
- Carrots – same as beets, my favorite is Red Cored Chantilly and regular ol’ Nantes type, White Lunar is fun though as well as Dragon purple carrot (you can also plant turnips at this time)
- Winter Radishes – these are spicier and slower growing than spring radishes, my favorites are Misato Rose and German Beer radish, they mature into the light frosts of October
- Cilantro and Parsley – the more mature the plant is before the cold weather hits the better, but even young ones will typically survive very cold winters, my parsley plant is currently 3 years old and always has green leaves still in January!
Mid August – Mid September
- Greens – Kales, Red Russian (AKA Ragged Jack) and Lacinato (AKA Dinosaur Kale) are the two that I love and plant most often. This year is our first year planting a “forager” type kale used to feed livestock, it is called Proteor and will be fed to the goats when it fully matures sometime in November/December…and a good collard is Morris Heading Collard,it forms a loose head and is more tender than regular collards and for mustards my favorites are Red Giant and Purple Osaka I love to use them in place of lettuce on a sandwich
- Cabbage – a Non heading type like Black Palm Tree tends to be more heat tolerant but matures rapidly once temperatures start to cool off
- Swiss Chard – Five Color Silverbeet is my very most favorite, I grow it ALL YEAR! however, it is easily killed by heavy frost but planted early will quickly mature in the coolness of fall as long as you keep it well watered, my other favorite type is a white-ribbed type called Fordhook Giant and these babies will live well into December but typically get killed off by the extreme cold of January, however they are always the first to put out new leaves in springtime, second only to spinach..
- Spinach – The “Star” of the winter garden, it tastes sweeter after heavy frost and continues to grow new leaves (albeit very slowly) even in the coldest weather! We plant THOUSANDS of spinach seeds every late summer/early fall and harvest POUNDS of it in the springtime (we harvested 10 POUNDS of spinach this past spring!). My favorite type is Giant Noble.
- Mache – a gourmet european green with tender tasty rosettes of leaves that have a sort of nutty flavor reminiscent of walnuts, just like spinach they are super cold hardy, growing new leaves in the coldest of weather and at a faster rate than spinach even. I personally prefer the dutch varieties over the french varieties, but to each his own…Mache and Spinach make up the majority of our winter salads!