Knowing what to plant in a fall vegetable garden will open your eyes to a whole new world and extend your edible gardening season for many weeks or longer. Some varieties even get better after exposure to a few frosty nights.
I’ve had great success buying and planting cool-season vegetable seedlings in early September. Here in the Atlanta area, they have plenty of time to mature to full productivity, even for the most sensitive crops.
You can also start plants from seed. However, it’s important to allow enough extra time for them to germinate and fully mature before it becomes too cold or frost does them in (if applicable for what you are growing). In most cases, seeds for cool season edibles should be sown in late summer to allow for the extra time required.
While summer is typically considered the season for the classic vegetable garden, the cooler temperatures of fall find far fewer pest and disease populations to challenge plants (and gardeners). Also, many edible varieties that would never grow happily in warmer times thrive in cooler and even cold weather of the fall vegetable garden.
If heat, humidity, gnats, and bugs, along with constant watering and weeding are just not your thing, then fall gardening should be pure pleasure to those who are not fans of those ubiquitous conditions of summer gardening.
Most cool season crops will do fine even through frost and some freezing temperatures. But depending on what you grow and where you live, some level of protection may be necessary when temperatures drop below certain levels.
While all the following plants can also be grown in late-winter or early-spring, the information below was written to specifically address planting options for late-summer to early-fall of the most popular cool-season edibles.
Best Plants for a Fall Vegetable Garden
Arugula: Grow arugula like lettuce. Seeds germinate in about 5-7 days, even in cold soil. This leafy green vegetable has a spicy kick that works great mixed in salads. The dark green leaves and interesting leaf margins add a nice ornamental appeal to your garden as well.
Beets: For a fall harvest, plant beets 10-12 weeks before the first frost. Or look for seedlings already started for help with timing. Seeds germinate in about 5-days. Beets taste best if you harvest them before they get too large (2″-2.5″ is ideal).
Broccoli: Late summer or early September direct seeding is best for timing. Sowing early will allow plenty of time for broccoli to head up. Or go with transplants when available. If you don’t want them all ready at once, consider staggering your sowing times over a few weeks. Cut main head from the plant when the crown is still rather tight. Leave the remaining plant in the ground, and you may get additional smaller side heads later. The sweetest broccoli you will ever eat comes from your garden when kissed by frost.
Brussels sprouts: This is likely the hardiest plant in your edible garden. Seeds germinate best when soil temperatures are still warm (75-80 degrees), so direct sow seeds now as these plants are not fast growers. You can also buy seedlings if you’re getting a later start. Its taste is all the better when several touches of frost have visited your plants. Another great plant for adding vertical interest to a garden (so be sure to stake these plants).
Cabbage: Direct seed in late summer or early fall. Seeds germinate in about six days. The smaller the heading size, the faster till harvest. A plant that thrives in cool but not cold temperatures, there are many varieties available. Grow your own and experience the pleasure of what fresh sweet cabbage tastes like. You don’t know until you experience the dramatic difference for yourself.
Carrots: Root crops are classic for cool season growing. Carrots seeds germinate in about seven days but grow slowly. In fall, sow seeds no later than ten weeks before the first frost for a fall harvest. The seeds are tiny. Sow as evenly as possible but expect to come back after germination to thin out crowded sprouts for proper spacing. The ferny tops are a delicate look that enhances the design of any winter garden.
Cauliflower: Similar to broccoli and cabbage but a bit more challenging. Look for young seedlings and set transplants into the garden in late summer or early fall. Mature heads are sensitive to frost so for fall crops sowing after mid-August may not allow ample time for full maturity depending on where you live. It’s well worth dedicating a bit of space to this for the chance of experiencing just how good it can be from your garden. Even non-cauliflower lovers enjoy it fresh from the garden.
Chinese Cabbage: Asian cousins of our domestic cabbage, direct sow seeds into the garden about eight-weeks before the first frost. You can usually find seedlings at the garden center as well. Common varieties found include open forms Joi choi, Pak choi, and Bok choi. All are easy to grow and especially well-suited in stir-fry dishes.
Garlic: Super easy to grow, sow cloves directly into the soil about 2-inches deep in mid-fall and enjoy the harvest next summer. If you like garlic, growing the varieties you love is always a plus and couldn’t be easier.
Kale, Collards, and Mustard: Superfoods that are winter hardy. A few plants will fill a garden bed quickly. Sow seeds in late summer or early fall. Or transplants when available. Also ornamental, these plants are great to cook up on a cold night or toss in a smoothie, especially kale.
Kohlrabi: Perhaps the strangest looking plant you’ll ever grow in your edible garden. Kohlrabi is fast-growing and a cousin of cabbage and broccoli. This is a great plant to direct sow in fall up to one month before the first frost. Harvest as needed. It’s winter hardy and will store in-ground until you’re ready to harvest. For extra protection from cold snaps, cover with a layer of straw.
Lettuce: Super easy to grow, sow seeds directly into beds or containers starting about eight weeks before the first average frost date. Lightly cover with soil. Seeds germinate in about a week. For a faster start, use transplants. With so many varietal options, the ornamental qualities are superb as well. To extend the season, sow a new crop of lettuce seeds or transplants about every two-weeks for a succession of fresh lettuce all through the season.
Onions: Onions grow happily through winter, forming bulbs next spring for a summer harvest. Although not difficult to grow, there’s more to know about selecting the right kind of onions for your growing area (short-day or long-day), as well as seeds or sets. Do your homework before you make your purchase to ensure you are getting the most appropriate selections for your area.
Peas: Sow seeds in late summer to early fall. Seeds germinate in about 10-14 day (longer when soil temperatures are cooler). Peas are great for adding vertical interest. Just give them something to climb on. Shorter varieties are also available. Sugar snaps and snow peas are cool season varieties and like candy in the garden. Every cool-season garden should include peas.
Radishes: The fastest-growing edible plant in your garden, they can be ready to harvest in less than 30 days from seed. Radishes thrive in the cool soil of fall. Keep in mind there are over 200 varieties. So, if all you know are the small hot ones, give radishes another look for a fast-growing, tasty, storable crop that’s super easy to grow.
Spinach: Sow seeds in early fall. Seeds germinate in 3 -5 days and plants grow well through fall. Harvest from the outside to allow plants to keep growing from the center. Although winter hardy, cover with a light layer of straw for extra winter protection and enjoy harvesting into late next spring. What could be better than harvesting some fresh sweet leaves of spinach for a salad or side dish?
Swiss Chard: Perhaps the most beautiful and toughest plant for year-round interest. Sow seeds about ten weeks before first expected frost. Or add transplants when available in spring or fall. Fairly cold tolerant. Even if foliage dies back in winter, new leaves commonly emerge in spring from the base. This is one tough and beautiful plant. Does well for an edible ornamental element in beds or containers. Lots of varieties and great in stir-fry too.