Planning the Perfect Fall Garden

Fall is right around the corner, and for me, that means it’s time to start planning our fall garden. I love deciding what we will plant and where we will plant it. I love prepping existing beds and building new ones too. I like watching the seeds I so carefully placed in the earth begin to come to life. We plan our garden based on what our family enjoys most, and we plant the crops that we'll get the most use from. I’d like to help you plan the fall garden of your dreams.


 

How do you know what to plant?


At first, this takes some thinking and even some trial and error. Most people know what vegetables, fruits, and herbs their family enjoy, and this is a good place to start. Keep in mind that there tend to be fewer options with a fall garden than with a spring garden. You also need to know your growing zone. The USDA Zone Map can help you determine what growing zone you’re in, and each plant or seed pack you purchase will include information on whether it will grow in your zone, and when it should be planted. Be sure to do a quick check when you're out buying your seeds or plants. This time of year many garden centers will have some spring and summer plants still on the shelves, but it is too late to plant them in most zones here in the US.


An image of the book "Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast."
My go-to gardening book.

Many varieties of plants are now available for various zones, and more are being developed each year. Knowing the average date of the first and last frost in your area is important too so that you can decide when to start planning your garden, when to plant your crops, and when to expect to harvest your goodies.


This tool, while not an exact science, will help you get an idea of these dates. There are also many books you can purchase, with quite a few tailored to a specific region, that offer great advice for gardening in your area. I love this one pictured at the above right, as the information is pertinent to my area. A quick Amazon search for "gardening in [insert your region here]" should deliver helpful results.


Now you know what to plant, so what next?


You’ll want to prepare your garden beds before you buy seeds or seedlings. You’ll need to decide what sort of plot you want, and this may largely depend on your yard size. Whatever you decide, make sure your chosen location will offer plenty of sunlight. You have several options:


Your first and perhaps easiest option is a traditional plot. For this type of bed, all you will need to do is till a spot in your yard and plant your seeds or seedlings. This can work well if you've got lots of room and a nice, flat space to build your garden. Remember it will also need to be free of large trees that block the sunlight.


Raised beds are another great option. For this method, you will build the beds out of wood, stone, bricks, or whatever you have, and then fill them with dirt. These are good to help with drainage and offer soft soil, but they can dry out quickly so they will need to be monitored closely in hot, sunny weather. Below are two examples of raised beds in our yard. The wooden one was built several years ago and was originally meant to hold only flowers. It is being removed and rebuilt with cinder blocks to become a larger bed for herbs.

These pictures are also raised beds, built from landscaping timbers. This garden space was created almost six years ago and will also be rebuilt this coming season with cinder blocks. This is our biggest garden space, and currently, it is home to pea, kale, and cabbage seeds that should be coming up any day now.


Square-foot gardening is an option that I have heard about several times in the last few years. Admittedly, I don’t know much about this one, but basically you determine how many plants you can grow in a square foot. There is much information online about this option, and I have heard it's an excellent option for those with limited space.


A whiskey barrel planter.
A whiskey barrel style pot is great for some veggies.

Container gardens are as simple as they sound. In this method, you grow your crops in pots. This is a good choice for those growing vegetables on balconies and for those who want just a few plants. One drawback is that it can require large pots and a lot of soil, depending on what you choose to grow. The pot pictured at left is a good size to grow many crops in, but some will need even bigger containers.

Bed preparation and buying supplies:


Once you’ve decided on what type of bed to use, you’ll need to prepare it. Test your soil with a test kit (available at any place you’d buy plants) and add any recommended amendments. This site has information about why soil testing matters and how to do it. The page also includes information and links to amendments you may need depending on the results of your soil test.


A quick note on soil testing: If you choose to build raised beds or use container gardens, you’ll likely be buying bags of soil to fill them. If you purchase high-quality, raised bed garden soil, testing won’t be quite as important at the beginning, though you’ll still want to do it the following seasons to ensure things are still in good shape.


You will want to buy your supplies including raised bed materials, soil amendments, soil, seeds/seedlings, and/or flowerpots for container gardening. Make a list so you don't buy too much or too little, or forget something. It's best to have everything purchased and ready to go all at once if possible. That way you can get your new project off to a good start.


Creating your bed:


For this article, I am going to discuss building raised beds since that is what we have and I’m most familiar with. These are easy to build and maintain and work well if you have hard soil like clay or really sandy soil. First, determine what size you want your bed to be and build your perimeter with your chosen material. If you choose cinder blocks, all you need to do is set them next to one another. There is no cutting and little measuring, so it's quite easy to build a bed that will last.


Build it up to your desired height, usually around six to twelve inches deep. Our beds are not too deep- we use cinder blocks so they’re about 8 inches high. Till up the ground inside your bed to loosen the dirt and remove all the grass and weeds, then fill in the bed with bagged soil. We use organic gardening soil and add in some compost. Smooth it out and moisten the soil.


Your bed is now created, and you can plant immediately or you can let it sit if it’s not quite time. One thing I'd like to mention is that while I start many plants from seeds in the spring in a greenhouse, in the fall I like to plant the seeds straight in the ground. The soil is already warm, and many fall crops don't do well with transplanting.


Seeds or seedlings: that is the question.


In the spring, making the decision between seeds or seedlings is tougher. Often, it isn't warm enough yet to put seeds into the ground and you may prefer to start them in a greenhouse ahead of time. It might be easier to just wait until planting time and buy seedlings. In the fall, however, the ground is already warm when it's time to plant because you plant fall crops in the late summer. Many fall crops also do better started in the garden bed from seeds than they would as transplanted seedlings. For this reason, all the crops I plant in the fall are seeds put straight into the garden.


If you decide to buy seedlings, make sure you choose healthy ones that are bright green and well-established. If they look droopy or pale/yellow, they’re probably not healthy. If you choose to start seeds directly in the garden bed, simply choose your desired varieties and make sure they will grow in our zone and you're in the right timeframe for planting.


Now you're ready to plant!


Once you have purchased your seeds or plants and your bed is ready, you can get your garden started. Simply follow the planting guidelines on the back of the seed packet or the tag in the plant pot. For seeds, pay special attention to not only planting time but also if they need to be sown in rows or mounds. Also, note how deep to plant them and whether to cover them with soil or leave them uncovered.


Once your new babies are planted, water everything thoroughly and wait for the magic to happen. Mark the date on your calendar so you'll know when the seeds should begin to emerge. Some fall crops will provide multiple harvests. Some examples include greens, lettuces, kale, and peas. Others will be one crop, such as carrots. Some will die off with the first frost and others may survive right up till spring.


Now you know all the basics to plan a fall garden, decide what to grow, build your bed, and start your seeds. It’s time to jump right in. Believe me, I have not always been great at gardening. But I realize now after gardening regularly for close to six years that I get better at it each year, and each year I learn new things. Many things you can’t control and Mother Nature may foil your best-laid plans. More than likely, though, you’ll end up with some tasty, fresh, homegrown veggies. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Happy gardening!


Do you have a preferred method of gardening or any tips you’d like to share with our readers? If so, please tell us about them in the comments!

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