This time of year, when most vegetable gardens are teeming with fresh produce, it is hard to think about starting additional plants. However, right now is the perfect time to start a fall garden and extend the growing season until the first frosts of the year, or possibly beyond with certain hardy plants.
Early August through September is an excellent time to consider adding some vegetable crops to your garden. Some of my fondest gardening memories come from amazing crops that kept producing through late November, such as our kale patch that kept giving well past Thanksgiving. By planting these late producers, you are able to maximize use of the growing season here in central Illinois, which means it may be time to finally add another bed to your garden. Or maybe you have plants that already waned production for the year and are rapidly declining in the August heat. This is a good time to pull them out and start anew to finish this gardening season strong. A month from now, it will be quite satisfying to see a space previously occupied by a failed or finished crop filled with thriving plants that will power through until the cold sets in.
To begin your fall garden space, clear all plant residue from past crops and prepare the soil for planting with tillage. Or, since crops may have used the space already this season, the soil may be loose enough to simply pull any weed competition (not to say that there would be any weeds, but we all know how that goes....) and plant directly into the bed.
Fall is an excellent time to start many types of herbs. In fact, certain herbs thrive in cooler weather, such as: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, lavender, cilantro and mint. Although many of these herbs do well when started from seed, they are often easily found as potted starts this time of year, as many garden centers still have some hanging around from the spring planting rush.
In addition to herbs, there are many fall vegetable crops that do well as starts from seed. In central Illinois, crops such as beets, carrots, and green beans should be direct seeded right away (early August) in order to reach maturity before our first killing-frost occurs, typically around mid-October. Others, such as kohlrabi, kale, turnip and winter radish should be planted by late August. Spinach, leaf lettuce, and spring radish can be seeded anytime from now to mid-September. Some crops, such as spinach and kale, are even noted to have improved sweetness after a frost occurs. In fact, some varieties of kale can withstand temperatures as low as 10 degrees. What a super food!
If you are lucky enough to find plant starts at your local gardening center, then you’ll be that much more ahead of the game. Broccoli and cauliflower are commonly sold as starts for fall gardens. Many of the vegetables listed above do great when planted in August as seedlings. One of the trickiest parts of a fall garden is staring seeds or seedlings during the very hot and dry late summer months. Special attention will be needed to keep seedlings watered and thriving until the hot weather breaks. When starting from seed, adequate moisture must be provided as the seed germinates and the tiny first shoots emerge. This is a time of high demand for water as the fragile root system works to support new above-ground plant parts. With a little extra help over the next few months, your fall garden will thrive when cooler weather sets in and Mother Nature graciously provides more rainfall.
For more specific information on vegetable crops, please see the University of Illinois Extension’s Vegetable Growing Guide at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/vegguide/. Here you can find great information on everything from planting tips to common garden problems and recommended control measures.