5 Tips for Starting a Fall Garden
1. Choose the location before starting a fall garden
A winter and fall garden needs sun. Pay attention to how much sun your garden is getting in the fall. Cooler and shorter days and the changing angle of the sun mean areas that once were in full sun may not receive as much. Make sure the area you are starting a fall garden in gets 6-8 hours of sun per day for the greatest chance of success. Less sun will mean slower growth in winter crops. South-facing walls provide an ideal location for starting a fall garden.
Looking for more information about where to locate a garden? Download my “Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Garden“.
2. Get soil ready before starting a fall garden
Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. The soil level probably has gone down in your raised beds and garden area. Why? Organic matter decomposes and needs to be replaced. Before starting a fall garden, refresh the organic matter by adding compost.
Add lots of compost to fill the beds back up. Combine the compost with the top 4-5 inches of existing soil. If you don’t make your own compost, purchase several different types of compost to add to the beds.
Add organic fertilizer to the soil. Natural organic fertilizer has had minimal processing, and the microorganisms in the soil will continue to decompose the fertilizer as it adds nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the soil as well as other micronutrients and organic matter. Over time, organic fertilizer will improve soil structure and moisture-holding capacity. Organic fertilizer encourages worms and other beneficial soil organisms.
Synthetic or chemical fertilizers are man-made and contain no organic elements. The are highly concentrated and can burn roots, and are used up quickly. Choose organic fertilizer if you can.
3. Decide what to plant when starting a the fall garden
Find and use a reliable planting guide meant for your area. The local extension office is a great place to begin your search for a planting guide. When starting a fall garden in Arizona, for Maricopa County, I recommend U of A Cooperative Extension Planting Calendar for Maricopa County. This is the guide I follow for my fall garden in Arizona. Follow the planting guide’s recommendations of what and when to plant. Use it as a guide, and if it is unseasonably warm or cold, adjust accordingly.
Two types of plants to consider before starting a fall garden - crops that (1) mature quickly, and (2) can tolerate light frost.
Fall Garden – Seed to harvest in less than 40 days:
- Mustard, Tatsoi and Mizuna greens
Tips for planting seeds in the fall garden
- Best grown from seeds: beans, peas and root vegetables like carrots and beets.
- When planting seeds, look for short-season varieties if possible. The seed packet will list a “days to harvest”. When you have a choice, choose the seeds with the fewest “days to harvest”. This is especially true if you are planning on succession planting – staggaring planting throughout the season to maximize plantings.
- As seeds come up, thin seedlings with scissors rather than pulling out the root. This allows the stronger plant to grow with its roots undisturbed.
- Seeds may need more frequent watering to germinate if the days are still warm. Once planted, do not let seeds dry out. A dry seed is a dead seed.
- If you live in a hot summer climate like Arizona, start seeds a little deeper than normal as the soil is typically cooler (and more moist) a little deeper down.
Tips for planting seedlings in the fall garden
- Best grown from transplants: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and celery.
- With transplants, bigger doesn’t always mean better. The plant size of the transplant should not be larger than the pot or package; roots may be rootbound. It’s best to transplant small seedlings so they can become accustomed to the growing conditions in your garden.
- For hot summer climates (like Arizona), start seeds of cool season crops indoors, then transplant them outside when it’s time to plant.
- Give transplants a day or so to adjust by keeping them in the shade; make sure they are watered.
- If it is still hot during the day, plant the seedlings at night to let them settle in overnight.
- If it is getting cold at night, plant them in the morning to give them the day to settle in before having to adjust to the cooler temperatures.
4. Be on the lookout for pests in the fall garden
Aphids and other pests thrive in cooler weather of a fall garden and love the tender new growth of young plants. Pests are attracted to sickly or diseased plants. Keeping your plants healthy is the best defense. For more about preventing pests in the garden organically, read this post.
Aphids: These tiny insects cluster on members of the cabbage family and annual flowers, often leaving a sticky residue and cause yellowing and wilting. Treat severe infestations with a soapy water solution, spraying off afterwards.
Whiteflies: They come in the late summer and early fall. If the infestation is severe, spray off with soapy water especially concentrating on the undersides of leaves. Be sure to rinse plant off afterwards. Treat often until the problem subsides. Whiteflies are also attracted to yellow sticky traps; they are attracted to the yellow but then stick and can’t fly away.
- Cabbage worms: Use row covers to protect young plants from moths landing and laying eggs that develop into cabbage worms. If you see holes in the leaves, check undersides of leaves and pick off worms by hand. Consider using BT (Bacillus Thuricide) BT effectively inhibits growth of worms, borers. The bacteria infects their ability to utilize food.
5. Mulch and water new plants well
As plants emerge and begin growing, mulch plants with additional compost, shredded leaves or wood chips. Mulching your fall garden prevents weed growth, insulates the soil, helps soil retain moisture, and attracts worms. As the mulch decomposes it will add organic matter to your soil.
Higher temperatures in places like Arizona may mean you need to water your fall garden more often until temperatures fall. Newly-planted seeds must be kept moist. An automatic system for watering is best. A watering system can be as simple as a battery-operated timer with drip line or soaker hose or going to the garden. For more tips on watering your plants, see my Summer Gardening Guide.