March thru April and September thru October can be prime times to plant a cool weather garden. The spring and fall garden really does have some advantages for the vegetable gardener.
There’s no sweating through hot and humid weather, swatting at bugs, and no need to lug around the hose or watering can. Greens and lettuces are ideal candidates for cool-weather gardening in nearly every part of the country.
Cool weather gardening ideas and tips:
March 25-31 (in zone 5), we begin successive sowings of peas, spinach, leaf lettuce, onion sets, turnips and shallots.
1. Cilantro sows itself freely, so you can almost always have cilantro for your Mexican dishes. Cilantro sown from seed in the fall will bring a free ‘volunteer’ spring crop if you let it drop its seeds in the winter. Just turn it under as a green manure before planting again in the spring. The early green freshness of cilantro WOWS me after a long, hard winter!
2. Chives (tender, native green onions) is a perennial. Give your chives a haircut anytime, and it will send up pretty new silvery-blue tops to adorn your spring and autumn soups, baked potatoes, and dips.
3. Lettuces and other greens (spinach, bok choi, chard, beet tops) quickly give you wonderful fresh greens and you can enjoy fresh-from-the-garden goodness for salads, green smoothies, sandwiches for weeks. When it gets hot in late spring/summer, they soon become bitter and go to seed. Plant them again in late summer/early fall for a repeat harvest.
4. Seed quickly-maturing root crops, like carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips early in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Again, you can plant them at the end of summer to keep them going well into the fall. Sometimes it feels like you can almost plant too much to eat at one time, so just plan to keep sowing short 4′ rows successively. That way you’ll always have something ready but won’t be overwhelmed and wondering if the Flopsy Bunnies are available for some selective garden thinning!
5. Potatoes can go in 5-6″ deep pretty early! It’s traditional to plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, but if your garden soil feels tough like Play-Doh, wait until later to plant. And if it’s like chocolate cake, go ahead!
In the fall, if you plant organic store-bought potatoes (ones not treated with sprout inhibitor) early enough to develop tops and flowers before frost, the spuds will grow well under the warmer soil and bring you a nice November harvest!
Cool weather veggies are hardy!
Hardy vegetables are veggies that amazingly can tolerate a short, hard frost (sometimes 28 – 30 degrees F). They taste best as their stronger flavors mellow in cool weather, spring or fall.
See the USDA Freeze Map for the approximate date of the first freeze in your area. This will give you an idea of how long your fall harvest season will last, because many of these hardy vegetables will continue in the fall garden for weeks after the first hard frost.
It’s amazing. When you understand this, you wonder, “Why doesn’t everyone plant a fall garden?”
Growing Carrots in Pots!
You can have fun growing carrots in the spring (April on) in a container of loose soil if you haven’t the space or inclination to do it in the ground. This is a wonderful project for a child!
Consider a cold frame
They’re available commercially, but you can also make your own cold frame. Improvisation is just one part of gardening. Many gardeners devise a plan for extending the season in the fall garden, and a couple of old window frames make for an excellent insulated straw bale cold frame. Allow for venting.
See my post on cold frames in different climates here.
When it turns cool, add a splash of color
If planted in a protected place of dappled shade (or in a medium to large pot you can move to shade), my spring “Plentifall” pansies are known for taking me right into late fall with luminous color. Last year’s pot of pansies, in a sheltered place and half buried in leaves and snow, was still alive this spring, ready to cheer us with their blooms once more.
Cool & Cold-loving
Some cool-season vegetables can even cross the line and survive as cold-season vegetables.
In the fall, Red Russian Kale (left) and rainbow chard (far right) can survive until the temperature reaches the freezing point and should even last through snow.
In the late fall garden, they are even sweeter and more tender, and a hand-full will add terrific nutrition to soups and smoothies. Use chard or kale like spinach.
Go for the crunch
There’s a reason broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are spring and late fall favorites in the stores. They can handle the cooler temperatures. Started in the garden in early fall (depending on your zone), any member of the Cruciferous family (incl. Brussels sprouts) is a good choice for the late fall garden when temperatures drop.
One surprising cool season garden crop is rhubarb. Yes, it’s often grown in the summer garden, but it prefers the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. We have made rhubarb pie in late October!
“Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” ~Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit
“In the garden, Autumn is, indeed the crowning glory of the year, bringing us the fruition of months of thought and care and toil. And at no season, safe perhaps in Daffodil time, do we get such superb colour effects as from August to November.” ~Rose G. Kingsley, The Autumn Garden, 1905