August is here and it’s time to get busy planting your fall vegetable garden. While your neighbor’s gardens start to look sad with weeds and failing summer crops yours can continue to be productive for weeks, months or even non stop from now on.
It’s hot now, but soon the weather will start to moderate, the bugs will start to thin out, and soil moisture will increase and garden tasks will become much more pleasant, but if you don’t act soon it will be too late for many crops.
In my area of zone 6 it’s still most likely 10 – 12 weeks until we start getting frost. More than enough time for another planting of summer squash, green beans, cucumbers or (theoretically) even another round of tomatoes if you can procure plants that are ready to go.
Most years rain is the big issue for late plantings of summer veggies, but so far this year the only rain problem in my garden has been too much of it. So I have my fingers crossed that I won’t have to water very often, but if you do have to water it’s far better to install soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines before planting if you can at all. However don’t let that concern keep you from planting – sooner the better.
Aside from one more round of summer vegetables the real reward of growing a fall garden will be all of the cool season plants that do well as the nights begin to cool. All of the brassicas are great in the fall garden – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts, etc. Here in the south it isn’t too late to start these from seed, but it also isn’t too soon to set out plants if you can get them – check your local farmers market, and online classifieds as well as nurseries, and garden centers.
Keep in mind that the cabbage family does best in cool weather, but they are not cold hardy. Many of them will survive or even improve from a light frost, but you have to harvest them before a hard frost or freeze. In our area the first few frosts are usually far between and the season can easily be extended by several weeks if you are prepared to cover tender plants for the first few frosts.
The first step in moving forward with this project is to yank out all of those failing plants that are just taking up space, and looking sad. Don’t hang onto failing vines just because they might produce another squash or two. Toss those things on the compost heap – unless they are diseased or infested in which case you should probably burn them as much as I hate to say it.
Once you free up some space you need to consult a calendar to decide what your planting options are. Calculate the time left until your likely first frost date.
If you have 10 or more weeks left of reliably temperate weather you can still direct sow green beans, squash and cucumbers – but you need to do it immediately if not sooner. You also still have time to plant cabbage and other brassicas from seed, but if your weather is hot like it is here you should probably do that indoors. If you can find plants ready to set out you can go ahead and do so now and any time until about 8 weeks before frost. large heading types may take longer to form heads so check the seed packages or even better talk to a local expert about which varieties to plant.
Here in zone 6 you can usually set out most brassicas until the end of August.
With 10 or more weeks until frost you can also direct sow beets, carrots, collards, lettuce, radish, garden peas, turnips, and potatoes. Carrots are pretty much cold proof in our climate and will stay perfect all winter long in the ground so plant lots of carrots in your fall garden.
At 8 weeks until frost you can direct sow more lettuce, turnips, radish, arugula, and spinach. A great thing about the fall garden is that once nights start to cool off your lettuce will stop trying to bolt, and you will be able to pick cool season salad greens throughout the fall from only a few plantings.
At about 6 weeks before frost it will be time to plant lettuce and spinach to establish in a cold frame, green house or other season extender. This planting will feed you well into the winter in many areas. When the weather gets really cold it will stop growing, but on fair sunny days growth will continue. It’s pretty great to be growing fresh salad greens all winter long. You can worry about building a cold frame or poly tunnel later if you don’t already have one, but get those seeds in the ground now!
Be prepared to keep everything watered during the remaining weeks of hot summer weather, and also protect tender young plants from marauding insects – row covers are helpful for both of these things.
Growing a fall garden is a great way to make your garden much more rewarding so get out there and brave the summer heat for a while to get one going. You’ll be glad you did.