If you're fortunate enough to live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9, you can often extend your harvest through the winter and into spring. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the climate is mild enough for gardeners to brag that they have three growing seasons for vegetables. OG test gardener Don Boekelheide, in Zone 8, ushers transplants from late summer into fall by shielding them from the sun with floating row covers, "allowing them to grow to sweet maturity in the chilly months." Another protective cover he favors is Tufbell, which minimizes frost damage on lettuce and greens. Boekelheide believes in thinking ecologically--that is, making use of season-extending microclimates. A south-facing wall at his community garden holds the heat so well the gardeners harvest greens all winter.
When to Plant
Timing is the most important factor for success in fall gardening. Plants need to reach a good size before daylight diminishes to the point where they stop growing rapidly. While the days are becoming shorter in late summer, the soil holds more warmth than in spring, encouraging faster growth. By October, plants are not growing much anymore, particularly in the far North, where the days are very short. This means starting transplants from seed about the end of July.
If you have a local nursery that serves serious gardeners, you may find seeds and even transplants for sale in August and into September. This is the easiest way to start your fall garden. But if you don't have a nursery you can rely on, plan ahead by stocking up on the seeds you'll need when you buy your spring supply. Choice of varieties is important. No matter where you live, frost- or cold-hardy varieties are your best picks for the chilly temperatures of fall and winter (see "Fall Favorites," opposite).
Where to Plant
Where do you find room to plant seeds when your vegetable beds are in full midsummer production? First, look where early-season vegetables are winding down. Peas are a perfect example, or perhaps your early lettuce crop. If that's not an option, try establishing a small nursery bed just for starting transplants, which can be as small as a square foot or two. Or, you can raise seedlings in flats on your deck or any other level surface until they are ready to set into the garden.
Sowing seeds in midsummer is different from spring growing. To succeed where summers are hot and dry, sow your seeds in a cooler, shadier spot until they have sprouted and are ready to thin. At this point, the days are shorter and you can move them to a more open location. Remember, seedlings must be kept consistently moist to survive, especially in hot weather. Avoid spots with poor drainage, however; plants drown in spots that stay soggy all winter.