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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Community Writer: Catherine Emerson, The Forgotten Vegetable Garden Season: Extending Your Harvests Into Fall

As we know, Lili’s blog focuses on using creativity to fashion a comfortable and lovely home for our families, all on a frugal budget. One element of doing this is feeding our families healthy and varied meals. A garden is one way of helping this happen. Our family eats particularly well in the summer months, using primarily produce we’ve grown ourselves, and it’s always so satisfying to look at a plate and realize the bulk of the food on it came from our own yard and labor. But what about the other months? That’s what I’d like to discuss today, specifically fall gardening and how to extend the months of harvest. We’ll start by talking through the various considerations, then put them together in an example.

For the purposes of this article, we’re assuming you have at least a bit of gardening experience. It’s certainly okay if you don’t, but spring/summer gardening may be an easier starting point if you’re brand new to gardening. In fact, most seed packets seem to be designed with the assumption that you’ll be planting in spring and summer.

To begin, consider your typical first frost dates of the fall. I’m in zone 7b here in Oklahoma, which means our average first frost date is October 15. If you don’t already  know your zone and first frost date, you can typically find this pretty easily in an internet search. This is just a general guideline, though, because your particular microclimate for where you’re growing may vary a bit. And that’s where previous gardening experience can come in handy. Did you notice that maybe one group of your tomato plants survived a few weeks longer than the rest last season? Perhaps there is a warmer area in your yard? This could be next to a brick wall, or on the southern side of your house. Don’t worry if you’re not yet aware of these areas, but it’s something to start trying to learn about the area where you garden.

If you are acquainted with other gardeners in your area, it can be helpful to discuss planting times with them. Several years ago now, I would visit our local farmer’s market, and an older gentleman there who I purchased from often loved to talk gardening. He was a retired teacher, and I feel he enjoyed helping others learn to garden at least as much, if not more, than he enjoyed selling his own produce. After purchasing fall green beans from him to can, he informed me that he feels the best time to plant green beans in our area is in late July to early August, for an October harvest. Since switching to that planting time frame, I have had much better crops of green beans! So much for the spring planting dates on the package!

Next, begin to think of any ways you already have to protect a harvest from frost. My first forays into fall gardening utilized old sheets and a bed skirt. Remember that odd interfacing-looking fabric used to connect the actual fabric sides that show on a bed skirt? Looks a lot like row cover! This doesn’t have to be expensive, and may not involve purchasing anything whatsoever. If you don’t already have old sheets or bed skirts lying around, these may be something you could pick up this summer at yard sales or thrift shops inexpensively. They don’t need to match, and small holes are okay. For smaller or individual plants, you might be able to use cut off plastic jugs or even glass jars. If you have the budget and inclination, you could also purchase commercial coverings, referred to as row covers or frost blankets. I was able to score a couple of clearanced rolls labeled “row cover” at my local Tractor Supply store several years ago, which was my first upgrade from the old sheets and bed skirt.

Something Lili specifically asked me about was my experience with daylight hours and how that affects plant growth. I have to admit that isn’t something that I have paid a whole lot of attention to thus far, though I do usually have my plants in the ground early enough (July, August) that there is still plenty of daylight for them to grow for the next couple of months. While looking into this, I found out through online sunrise/sunset time charts that there is only about 22 minutes more daylight in my area on October 15 than there is up in Portland, Oregon. So it’s not a huge difference, though perhaps worth looking up for your own area, especially if you are particularly far north or way down south.

Now we’re to the reason that you’re reading this post in summer, during the height of summer gardening! Were you wondering about that? Think back to those seed packets; did they have suggested germination temperatures and length of time to harvest on them? We can use that first frost date to count back and figure out when we need to do our sowing. Do you know either from experience or from your seed packet how long it will take to harvest the particular vegetable that you want to grow? It’s time to put all these factors together to create a fall garden plan. For best success, you’ll probably want to pick things to grow for fall that prefer a cooler growing season: various greens, brassicas, carrots, nasturtiums, etc… .

You’ll need to keep mind the space you have available for fall crops. If this is your first time intentionally growing into fall, you may have limited space to work with, and that’s okay. Think about what plants will be coming out in late summer, and where you might tuck in some fall plantings. Will that zucchini be winding down (or maybe you’ll be ready to pull the plant!)? Maybe you will have harvested your potatoes, onions, and garlic and have that space free for planting? Here are some veggies I have personally had success with growing into fall:

Beets Green beans
Various greens Lettuces
Carrots         Brassicas

Let’s go with a concrete example, using seed packet information and my own growing time frame.

Counting back 90 days from October 15 would put me at July 16. In some climates, this could probably be direct sowed since it can germinate at 75 degrees. However, in July here, soil temperatures are often somewhat warmer, so I will plan to plant these indoors in June and transplant them out around late July or early August. Sometimes I might also be willing to take a bit of a risk and plant a bit later, knowing that cabbage can tolerate light frosts. There is also the option of covering them. In my personal experience, I would choose covering if I knew there was a good likelihood of warmer weather again following an early hard frost, allowing the plant to continue to grow OR if the plant is at maturity and I just want to prolong it’s time in the garden so as to be able to use it fresh in the kitchen at a future date. Maybe I will have a dozen cabbages ready to harvest but really want to use them for coleslaw week by week, rather than preserving in some way. And refrigerator space is always at a premium in my household with all these teenagers! 

As you can see, there are so many individual factors at play here: climate, favored veggies, and future storage! But I hope this has allowed you to think through the process and see how you might adapt it to your tastes and climate, if you so choose. Please let me know any specific questions you might have in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

Catherine Emerson is a hiking and backpacking enthusiast. Catherine, trail name “Corgi” (for her short legs), lives in southwestern Oklahoma with her husband, 3 of their 5 kids still home, 2 silly but sweet dogs, several rescue cats, and a small flock of ducks. When not on the trail, Catherine enjoys spending her time reading, knitting or crocheting, and gardening, with permaculture inspiration and aspiration.


  1. Good solid advice, Catherine. We garden on a smaller scale here and usually just plant beets, turnips, radishes, and carrots for the fall. However, maybe we'll add green beans this year since they do well for you. Love the picture of you lush garden. What month was that taken?

    1. I hope the green beans work out if you give them a try! The garden pictures in this post were all taken in late October of last year.

    2. Sorry, this is me, Cat. Having trouble getting my google account signed in again.

  2. Thank you, Catherine, for this in-depth how-to. I'm even farther north than Lili, so I was wondering about day length, too; so thanks for commenting on that. Our growing season is short, especially due to some topographic factors, and since we sometimes (like this year) go from frozen ground to a heatwave, I have been having some trouble timing my cool season vegetables. It might, actually, be as easy to guesstimate first frost as last frost in our garden! Great information! Sara

  3. Oh, a short growing season sounds especially challenging! I hope growing more into the fall works if you decide to try it.

    1. We get looooong sunshiney days, but not a lot of them. :) Thanks, again, Cat. I wondered if you were "Catherine". Love your "trail name". My family has roots on the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, so we know a bit about trail names. Sara

  4. Thanks for such a thorough post, Cat! My husband is the gardener in our house, so I mostly reap the benefits (pun intended).

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! How nice to reap those benefits, however you can get them!


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