Get a Jump on a Cool-Season Vegetable Garden

The vegetable garden is in full glory during summer, filled with ripe tomatoes, rapidly growing squashes, hot and mild peppers, melons, cucumbers, corn and a host of other summer vegetables that can threaten to take over your yard and your kitchen. Most fruit trees are in full production, and berries are at their peak. Is it any wonder that by fall, most people are looking forward to relaxing indoors with a seed catalog and planning for next year rather than actively nurturing their own edible landscape?

Still … there’s that empty space in the yard. And while most vegetables did great in the summer heat, there were those plants that literally went to seed when faced with warm temperatures. That’s when the cool-season garden comes into play.

A cool-season vegetable garden is filled with plants that prefer the cooler temperatures and soils of spring and fall. Some even do their best with a touch of frost. For most people, cool-season vegetables are the ones you plant early in the year, when you simply can’t wait to return outdoors after winter. They’re also the ones that linger on after the rest of the garden has been put to bed for fall and winter. If you live in a warm-winter climate, the cool-season garden might actually span the second half of the gardening year, producing fresh veggies even in winter.

Wondering what vegetables you can harvest in fall and early spring? There are more options than you might think. Click these links for growing guides for each variety:

Popular and easy to grow in fall and spring: beetsbroccolicabbagecarrotschardkalelettucesleekspeas,radishes and spinach.

For the connoisseur: arugulaBrussels sproutscauliflowerceleryChinese cabbagecollards, endive, fennel,garliconionsparsnipssalad greens and turnips.

Surprising cool-season crops: including asparaguspotatoes and rhubarb. Yes, they are often thought of and grown in the summer, but they prefer the cooler temperatures of spring and fall.

More: See how to grow each of these crops in your own backyard

Consider a cold frame. Cold frames and cloches let you put out vegetable seedlings earlier in the season and keep crops producing later in the season. They’re available commercially, but you can also make your own. Hinge the top of a cold frame to allow ventilation. If you want to plant directly in the garden, simply put the cold frame in place and remove the lid when the air temps warms up, replacing it as things cool down.

See how to extend your growing season with a cold frame

Go green. Lettuces and other greens will quickly go to seed and become bitter in summer, but plant them during the spring and early fall and you can enjoy fresh-from-the-garden goodness for salads and sandwiches for weeks.

How to grow lettuce

Go for the cold. Some cool-season vegetables can even cross the line and survive as cold-season vegetables. Kale in particular can survive until the temperature reaches the freezing point and may even last through snow.
Go underground. Start quickly maturing root crops, like carrots and beets, early in the season of course, but also plant them at the end of summer to keep them going well into the fall. Both can be overwhelmingly productive if you have a single large crop, so just plan to keep sowing small rows or patches successively. That way you’ll always have something ready to go but won’t be staring at a sea of greenery and wondering if Peter Rabbit is available for some selective garden pruning.
Go for the crunch. There’s a reason broccoli is a fall and winter favorite in the stores; it can handle the cooler temperatures. Any member of the cabbage family is a good choice for the garden when temperatures drop.

Go up. Tender peas have long been considered a harbinger of spring. Start them early; you can use the same supports later in the summer to support beans, then get one last harvest of peas in during the fall.

How to start your garden from seeds

landscape by Samuel H. Williamson Associates

Give back to your garden. Fill in the empty spots in your landscape with a cover crop. While you may end up with more fava beans than you know what to do with, that’s the idea. These crops aren’t grown for food; instead, they are tilled or dug into the soil as amendments. There are a number of options available. Legumes, as fava beans and clovers, help add nitrogen to the soil; grasses add organic matter. In this photo, clover is used to cover a hillside, but it would work just as well in a vegetable garden.


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