Temperatures may be dropping soon, but there's still plenty to enjoy in a fall vegetable garden. Whereas fruit plants require particular care and take quite a while to mature (years, in the case of bushes and trees), some vegetables are best grown during the fall because of their affinity for cool weather and quick turnaround. A few dollars and some extra time is all you need to reap a variety of edibles.
All the fall favorites are cheap to purchase and easy to grow. It may take up to three months for some fall vegetables to be ready to harvest, but some seeds are ready in about 30 days. Plant, bulb, and seed packets cost as little as $1 and yield copious crops. Herbs are also popular and tasty additions to a fall garden; basil, for example, thrives during cooler months.
Of course, the ultimate success of a fall garden depends in large part on the local climate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a convenient Plant Hardiness Zone Map showing average annual minimum temperatures by ZIP code. Knowing your zone can help you determine what grows best when. A Way to Garden provides state-by-state information on last planting dates for fall garden vegetables. In some regions it may be too late to get started, so consider starting some pots indoors late next spring and transplanting when the moment is right.
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Carrots are an ideal crop to grow in fall, as they withstand frost and can be kept on hand for months after harvesting (with proper storage), making them economical, as well. What's more, as biennial plants, carrots are self-sowing, producing seeds through the second year of planting. Growing time is about 10 weeks, but mature carrots can be left in the ground as long as they are harvested before the ground freezes. Carrots can be used in many ways, including in soups, as a side dish, shredded in salads or to make carrot cake, roasted in the oven or on a grill, or, of course, eaten raw.
Although seemingly delicate, parsley can withstand frost quite well. But it's best sown in warm ground, making late summer an ideal time to start this crop. Parsley seeds average $3 to $5 a packet for organic and non-organic varieties. Flat leaf parsley is less bitter than the familiar dark green, curly variety. Traditionally used in soups, salads, and pesto, parsley can also be juiced by itself or with other fruits and vegetables.
Kale doesn't thrive in very warm weather. Ideally, kale should be planted in the fall, and the cool weather enhances the plant's natural flavors. According to the national wholesaler Bonnie Plants, a light freeze even adds an extra touch of sweetness. Kale has been gaining popularity as an alternative to lettuce in garden salads, but it has many other uses. Kale can be juiced for smoothies or tossed in a quiche to quickly add a vegetable to breakfast.
Garlic is a favorite herb among gardeners because of its low maintenance and quick spurt to maturity. The going price for a head of garlic (the cloves are the "seeds") is less than $1, and it requires little more than watering once planted. Fall weather is perfect for garlic, which prefers cool, dry conditions. In six to eight weeks, the cloves will be fully developed and full of flavor. Mince a few and add to mashed potatoes, roast to top off pasta, or blend with fresh herbs and goat cheese for a savory garlic spread.
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Rosemary thrives and grows almost any time of year, depending on the zone. Ideally, it should be planted eight weeks before the first frost. In some areas, the frost can arrive as early as September, according to The Old Farmers Almanac. However, some regions don't experience below-freezing temperatures until later in the year, making late summer an ideal time to start growing a rosemary plant. Rosemary has a variety of cooking and beauty uses, including adding a kick to roasted potatoes or making a soothing vapor breathing treatment.
Despite its name, summer squash can be planted from early summer until the first frost, making it an easy addition to any fall garden. Squash takes about two months to mature. Planted now, it will be ready in time to make savory soup in the winter months. Squash seed packets start at about $2 and include 25 to 50 seeds.
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It takes only about four weeks to grow crunchy and spicy radish. Radishes don't like heat, so late summer is an ideal time to start planting for an early fall harvest. A packet containing 200 to 300 radish seeds costs about $1. To increase the chances of a good yield, plant as many seeds as possible. Radishes are typically cut into salads but also add zest to sandwiches.
Cabbage needs a long growing season of up to three months before it's ready to harvest, but it should be planted in cool weather. A late summer planting allows just enough time before the first snow starts falling in some parts of the country. Cabbage is easy to transplant while growing, so eager gardeners can start a few cabbage plants indoors in pots during the summer and transport them to the garden in fall. Slice thinly and saute over low heat until caramelized for a side dish or try pickling some for a winter pucker. Packets of cabbage seeds cost about $1.
Spinach plants are often referred to as cool weather plants because spinach seeds thrive in cool soil. It can take up to eight weeks to harvest spinach leaves, but the plant's many uses make it worth the wait. Spinach is a tasty addition to salads, smoothies, and pizza and can be easily added to quiche, omelets, or lasagna. A packet of spinach seeds costs as little as $2.
One of fall's signature vegetables, pumpkin is a favorite for seasonal dessert and decor. Pumpkins require 75 to 100 days to mature, however, and The Old Farmer's Almanac suggests beginning the seedlings in early July at the latest. Pumpkin seeds are also slightly more expensive than other varieties; one packet can cost close to $5 and hold fewer seeds than other vegetable varieties. Plan ahead, though, and you'll have a home-grown ingredient for whipping up a delicious pumpkin pie next year.