Cool-Season Gardening Tips: How to Plant for Fall

As summer temps cool down and the air feels brisker, spring and summer gardens typically go into hibernation. Excitement over autumn-colored leaves replace the adoration for beautiful spring perennials and summery bright blooms. Pumpkin and gourds make an annual debut, and floral arrangements for the home turn from fuchsia pink and canary yellow to auburn oak and sunset orange. But for the true gardening enthusiast, a seasonal change doesn’t mean gardening work has to pause until next spring.

This fall gardening guide highlights ways the horticulturist can keep digging and growing as the cooler months approach.

Fall Benefits

The cooler temps of fall actually benefit plants (and gardeners). Roots are able to grow in the warm soil before the ground freezes. Pests and diseases appear less, and fertilization isn’t as necessary since winter will prevent new growth. To take advantage of these benefits, start fall planting before the first hard frost which is about six weeks between September and October.

hands planting a bulb in soil

Autumn Plants

Not sure how to approach your fall garden? Here’s inspiration for what to plant this fall:

Spring Bulbs: Spring-blooming bulbs need to be planted in the fall and require the winter cold dormancy in order to bloom in the spring. Sunset Magazine recommends planting the dutch iris for its intense colors, or darwin hybrid tulips for their cup-shaped blooms. Plant the parrot tulip accented with ruffled, feathery edges, or apricot daffodils for a pop of color. They also offer tips on choosing the best bulbs to plant in fall.

iris flower blooming

Cool-Season Plants: Cool-season flowers will bring color to your garden during the dreariest time of year. In mild-winter climates, plant hellebores with drooping bells, vibrant Iceland poppy, tangerine-colored nemesia or ornamental kale full of lavender, plum, rose, white and creamy yellow hues. The five-petaled pansy and flowering snapdragons will bloom all winter long. Winter jasmine actually prefer to grow in winter (or early spring) and create a striking yellow aesthetic amid a chilly winter landscape.

flowers blooming in the sun

Vegetable Gardening

Since the season changed from summer to fall, why not change your garden from plants to vegetables? First, determine the average first frost date of your area and the number of days to harvest for your particular vegetable. Use that number to count back from the frost date and add two days  —  this is the date to plant.

woman gardening

Garden Preparation: Prep your vegetable garden by removing any debris and pulling out any weeds. Adding organic matter or compost can also help your veggies grow. For the best results, grow your vegetables from a quality seed mix and water the plants well  —  about an inch of water a week. To extend your fall gardening season, use a cloche, sheet, blanket or tarp to protect from frost.

Top Crops: Sprinters are fast-growing veggie plants that take about 40 days or less to become ready-to-eat salad ingredients. Plant arugula, spinach, turnips and red radishes in September. Asian greens like tatsoi and mizuna only take about three weeks to grow. The hearty fall vegetables spinach and kale easily grow into early winter. Excellent fall crops also include beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots and cauliflower.

green leaf plant

Cold-Weather Protection

Eventually colder temps and harsher weather will settle in. The following tips can help protect your fall garden.

  • Use a layer of mulch to protect bulbs and roots from frost; mulch can also help soil retain water
  • Build tunnels over vegetable rows to help sow seeds early and keep growing veggies once winter arrives
  • Till organic matter beneath the soil and let the weeds or yard debris become natural compost for wintertime; make sure to till in mild-winter areas with soft soil
  • Use fabric coverings to protect perennials (just like your vegetables) from damaging frost

daffodils poking through ice

If you’ve got a green thumb and need a post-summer gardening fix, plant spring-blooming bulbs, cool-season plants and hearty veggies. And with winter protection, your garden will be ready to flourish by spring.