In talking with many backyard gardeners over the years, I’ve found that a vast majority only plant a spring/summer garden. They get excited every year when they see plants for sale at their local nursery or big box store, and they can’t resist. But usually once the heat of summer rolls around, most of them grow weary of the garden due to intense heat and heavy weed pressure. They neglect the fact that you can grow many different backyard vegetables in the fall and winter months, even if you live in a cooler climate. In fact, I would argue that you can grow a wider diversity of crops in the cooler months than you can in the warmer months.
The fall and winter months are some of the best times to be in the backyard garden, because the temperatures are cooler, the weeds don’t grow as fast, and the pest-pressure is greatly reduced. But growing in the cooler months can present a few challenges, depending on your zone or climate. Below we’ll discuss six important tips for growing a backyard garden in the cooler months. Once you understand and employ these easy practices, you’ll be well on your way to having year-round food production in your backyard garden.
Transplant Most Everything
While there are a few cool-season vegetables (carrots, beets, parsnips) that will perform better when direct-seeded, most cool-season vegetables will benefit from transplanting. Transplanting allows you to plant the seed and grow the seedling in a controlled environment until the plant is large enough to plant in your outdoor garden. Growing your own transplants is the most cost-effective option and allows you to choose which varieties you want to grow. But if you don’t have a greenhouse or indoor seed-starting setup, you can usually purchase cool-season transplants at a local nursery or farm store.
Transplanting will allow you to get a head start on the fall/winter growing season. By planting a 5 to 6-week-old plant as opposed to a seed, you’re giving yourself a timing advantage to prepare for upcoming cooler weather. Transplants will tend to start growing a few days after planting and will be much more resilient to any cold snaps that you may have early in the fall and winter months.
Plant a Couple Months Before Your First Frost
The timing here can vary somewhat from one vegetable to the next. For cold-hardy vegetables like spinach and collards, the timing of planting won’t be as crucial. But for moderately cold-hardy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, planting a couple months before your average first frost date is ideal. I recommend planting fall vegetables as soon as nighttime temperatures start to cool in the late summer or early fall months. For us in the south, that usually happens around the end of September. For those of you in the middle or northern part of the country, you’d want to plant earlier.
Planting early in the fall gives you the advantage of letting the plants grow and establish before freezing temperatures arrive. Larger plants tend to be more frost-resilient than smaller seedlings. Also, plant growth can slow tremendously once outside temperatures become consistently cold. Take advantage of those nice fall days and maximize your plant growth during that time.
Keep Your Soil Moist
You can mitigate a significant amount of frost damage in the fall/winter garden just by keeping your soil moist. Moist soil will insulate plant roots and create heat as the moisture radiates upward. I’ve done side-by-side comparisons over the years with frost-tolerance on beets that were well-watered versus those that had dry soil. The beets that were well-watered almost always survived freezing mornings with no issues. But if the soil was dry, many times the beets were toast.
If you’re going to have freezing nighttime temperatures, I suggest watering in the late afternoon. This will ensure even the most well-drained soils will stay moist during the freeze and that plants will be protected. In some cases, I have even used my drip irrigation system throughout the entire night when we were experiencing freezing temperatures. While this is probably not the most conservative use of water, it can certainly save your plants if you’re worried the frost might get them.
Use Mulch to Your Advantage
Mulching the plants in your backyard garden can provide several advantages. It reduces your weed pressure and helps to conserve moisture in the warmer months. But in the cooler months, it can help insulate your plants much like you would use a fleece jacket to insulate yourself. If you live in the southern states, mulching the fall/winter garden may be optional. But if you live in the middle or northern part of the country, mulch is a must.
There are many good options for mulching to insulate plants in the cool-season garden. Use what is easily available to you without breaking the bank. Our preferred mulch is pine straw because we have so much of it down here. If you have access to free wood chips or hay, those are also great options.
Feed a Biologically Active Fertilizer
When soil temperatures are lower in the fall/winter garden, the enzymatic activity in the soils will be reduced. Simply put, this means that organic fertilizers don’t break down as fast and don’t work as fast. Organic nutrient sources require some form of “biological breakdown” before those nutrients can be absorbed by plants. As such you’ll want to make sure you use a fertilizer that is biologically active so that your plants can be properly fed.
This is one of the many reasons we like to use AgroThrive General Purpose Fertilizer in the fall garden. We use low doses of it in our greenhouse when plants are in the seedling stage, and then increase the rate once plants are transplanted and growing in the outdoor garden. The biologically active formulation ensures that our plants can still obtain the nutrients they need, even when soil temperatures are lower and soil biology is less active.
Utilize Row Cover and Other Frost Protection Equipment
If you’re planning on growing a fall/winter garden, it’s always a good idea to have some type of frost protection in place. As mentioned above, keeping the soil moist and mulching are great techniques to prevent frost damage. But sometimes plants will need covering to ensure you don’t have a complete loss. If you get a rogue frost, you might not be prepared to protect the plants that need covering.
I suggest investing in some type of hoop and frost covering system that you can use whenever you need it. Even if you use it only a few times a year, it can be well worth the investment if it means saving a significant amount of produce. If you have a smaller garden with just a few plants, you can always use a few 5-gallon buckets to cover the plants that are at susceptible to frost damage.
A Fall Garden Can Be Your Best Garden!
We hope these tips have been helpful and will encourage you to extend your backyard gardening efforts throughout the cooler months. The cool, crisp mornings and evenings of fall are a great time to play in the garden and grow nutrient-dense foods for your friends and family. And before you know it, you’ll be the fall garden pro in your neighborhood with a bountiful cool-season garden full of kale, collards, spinach, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and more!