I would grow a vegetable garden all the year round if I could, but as it is I get three productive seasons – spring for cool-season greens and root crops, summer for tomatoes, peppers and sun-loving squash, and then comes the autumn garden, which starts right now. Where I live, broccoli and fast-growing cabbage varieties make excellent anchor crops for a great autumn garden, and vigorous young kale, collard and chard seedlings sown in summer will amaze you with their productivity as days become shorter and cooler.
Of course there's a catch. As most of us learn with experience, "autumn gardening" does not mean waiting until the weather feels like autumn to plant, but rather timing things so that vegetables grown from seeds sown in July and August mature in autumn, usually just after your average first autumn frost date. Many can stay in the garden much longer, and cabbage family crops and autumn root crops benefit from several light frosts, which trigger the plants' production of freeze-resistant sugars.
But you can't let planting dates slip, because plants grown for autumn face a dwindling supply of sunlight. On the plus side, this prevents bolting in many vegetables that use lengthening days as a trigger to flower, for example radishes and bok choy, making them ideal for growing in the autumn. But when days become too short, plants stop growing and, well, you know the rest.
Top Autumn Garden Crops
I give planting priority to slow-growing cabbage family crops like broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, and even rutabaga, all of which grow best for me when I start the seeds indoors where temperatures stay consistently cool. These little babies get transplanted very young, so they can get growing right away, and I use mulches and row covers to protect them from the usual stresses of late summer – baking sun and ravenous bugs.
Direct-sowing often works with kale, collards, and fennel, or you can start the seeds indoors and transplant them. The same goes for dill and cilantro, which bring big flavors to the autumn garden.
In addition to greens, the autumn season is ideal for carrots, parsnips, turnips, and even beets if you haven't burned out on them by now. I pre-germinate my parsnip seeds, so I don't always get to choose favorable weather for planting them, but with the other vegetables in this group I prepare their planting space and then wait for a spell of rainy weather to put the seeds in the ground. When waiting is futile because you know no rain is coming, try some of the special techniques covered in "Summer Planting Tips for Vegetables."
New Autumn Crops to Try
If you are looking for a few novel edibles to make your autumn garden even more interesting, consider unusual Asian radishes such as China Rose or Misato Rose, which are great in salads, fermented pickles, or roasted with other root vegetables. Indeed, many Asian vegetables including bok choy and Chinese cabbage make beautiful crops in autumn provided you remember to start them.
It's a busy time of year, with much harvesting, weeding and watering to be done, but don't let some of the best planting opportunities of the year pass you by. Once the seedlings for your autumn garden are up and growing, you will be glad you found the time to plant them.