How to Prepare a Fall Vegetable Garden

Rows of plants in vegetable garden

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For many gardeners, summer is the peak of their vegetable gardening season. The warm weather and long days are needed to coax tomatoes, peppers, and other heat lovers into ripeness. But fall has some qualities that make it extremely favorable for crops that prefer cooler temperatures or wetter conditions. In fact, in some areas it the best season for growing vegetables.

Why Plant Vegetables in the Fall?

If you've had an abundant growing season, you might prefer to look at fall as the season to rest and get the garden cleaned up. However, there are a lot of advantages to a fall vegetable garden that might make you want to reconsider. For instance:

  • The weather is milder.
  • Many insect pests are getting ready to hide out for winter.
  • The breeze keeps flying insects at bay.
  • The soil actually becomes that elusive "moist, but well-draining."

Preparing for a Fall Vegetable Garden

Although many vegetables grow and mature well into the fall, most need to be started before the nights turn cold. In climates with early frost dates, your fall garden will need to be started in mid-summer from late July through August. Even though the daytime temperatures remain high, evening temps will start to fall and the length of daylight decreases. So choose varieties with short days to maturity and get them in the ground on time.

As for gardeners in areas that experience extreme heat and infrequent rain during the summer, fall is the ideal vegetable gardening season. This is when you can grow your warm-season vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers. Many can continue growing throughout the winter, switching over to the cool weather vegetables as your rainy season moves in.

Garden Clean-Up Duties

If you've been tending your vegetable garden all summer—keeping it weeded, removing diseased or spent plants, not stepping on the soil—your garden won't need much prep for the fall. Just clear the space, maybe add some compost and start planting. If that's not the case, your garden could probably use some attention before you start your second season of planting.

  • Weeds: If they've been hiding out under plants, get rid of them now and do it before they go to seed.
  • Spent plants: Get rid of everything possible. You can leave your tomatoes and peppers to ripen, but many other plants, like early planted beans, cucumbers, and lettuce, are pretty much done for the season and they're just harboring disease and pests. Dispose of anything diseased and compost the rest.
  • Fallen fruits: If you've been lax about cleaning up small fruits that have dropped off the plant, make sure you get them out of there now. Rotting fruits attract pests.

If you plan to plant another spring garden, you can save time next year by noting what was planted where so you can rotate your crops as best as possible.

Prepare the Soil in the Planting Beds

The easiest way to freshen the garden soil is to remove the layer of mulch. If it's still in good condition, you can re-use it for the fall. Most likely a lot of it has decomposed already and you'll need to add a bit more. But before you do, you will want to make sure the soil is ready for planting.

Loosen Compacted Soil

If your soil has gotten compacted during the course of the summer, fluff it up a bit with a garden fork. You don't need to do major tilling, just enough to allow the new plant roots to move around and for water to get through.

Amend the Soil Before Planting

If you are feeling diligent, fall is a great time to test your soil. A lot of amendments take time to have an effect on the soil.

At the very least, replenish the soil by working in some compost. You can top dress with it or work it in while you are loosening the soil. Have your planting layout done before you add the compost so you add it where the plants will be growing and not in the garden paths.

If you choose to use manure, make sure it has thoroughly composted for at least six months. Fresh compost can burn plant roots and can pose a serious health risk to humans when used on vegetable plants.

It's also good to add some slow-acting organic fertilizer when you loosen the soil. You can add individual amendments, like green sand or blood meal, if that's what your soil test recommends. But if you're plants aren't showing signs of nutrient deficiencies, a general-purpose fertilizer will do the job.

When you're done adjusting your soil, rake it out. Raking evens out the surface, breaks up any remaining clumps, and creates furrows to catch water.

Replace the Mulch

If you still have mulch from the summer, you can reuse it on the freshened planting beds. If you need to add more, straw makes an excellent mulch for vegetable gardens because it is easily scattered and moved about. It also makes a wonderful home for spiders, who will assist in controlling your pest population.

Another good choice for mulching in the fall is shredded leaves. If you have a supply of fallen leaves, either run them through a shredder, pile them up and mow them, or corral them and run the string weeder through them like a blender. Wet them down well after you spread them or they will blow away. A light top dusting with compost will also help keep them in place. Unshredded leaves tend to form a mat that doesn't let water through to the soil.

Preparing Your Vegetable Garden for Winter

If you are planning on using any kind of frost protection like a cold frame or hoop cover, consider getting your structures in place now. Putting them out early will guarantee they are there when you need them and will help prevent hurting the plants and their roots once they are growing. Don't put the covers in place yet, just the framing.

If this sounds like too much work or if you would like to rest your garden for the fall, you can always sow a green manure or cover crop and let your garden tend itself until spring.