Starting a Fall Garden: Cool Season Vegetable Varieties to Grow
It’s early July, so that means it is time to start thinking about your fall or winter gardens! Wait… what? Yep, it sure is. Despite the fact that summer just began, and perhaps your tomatoes aren’t even ripe yet, now is the perfect time to plan a fall garden – and possibly even start sowing seeds for it! Whether you’re new to fall gardening, or simply curious to see what vegetable varieties we are growing this fall, follow along for some fresh ideas (and plenty of photos). The winter garden happens to be our favorite garden of all! For us, it is more tidy, more prolific, and easier to maintain.
In this article, I will share tips on how to start a fall garden, and give you a full list of the cool season vegetables we are planning to grow. Just like our “What We’re Growing Spring & Summer 2020” article, I will highlight which varieties are new-to-us, those that are tried-and-true favorites, and some reasoning behind why we chose each of them. Keep in mind that the exact varieties that do well in our garden may not perform the same in yours, so we’ll talk about tailoring your selections to your climate. Last but not least, our timing to start seeds, plant, and harvest may vary from yours, so we’ll talk about individual planting schedules and ways to extend your growing season.
Are you ready to grow along with me? Excellent. Let’s dig in!
Timing: When should I start fall or winter garden crops?
There is no one-size-fits all answer here. It depends on your climate and zone! As a general rule of thumb: the earlier your area receives frosty winter weather, the sooner you need to get your fall garden started. That may be as soon as NOW, especially if you want to grow from seed.
For example, here on the temperate Central Coast of California (zone 9b/10a), we start our cool season vegetable seeds in our greenhouse in mid-August. Those will then be transplanted out into the garden beds in late September to early October. Except for root veggies of course, which will be directly sowed outside around the same time we transplant seedlings out.
We are totally spoiled and very rarely get frost here, so we aren’t up against a clock. Most of you will need to get sprouting sooner, so your plants have a chance to grow and produce before freezing weather comes. Yet even if you’re in a mild climate like ours, don’t wait too long to start just because frost isn’t a threat! Seedlings planted in the dead middle of winter will struggle to thrive because of the shorter daylight hours at that time.
If you don’t have one already, you can snag a Homestead and Chill planting calendar (and more!) by subscribing to the blog below. It will show you when to sow seeds indoors, transplant seedlings outside, and plant seeds directly outdoors. I made one for every USDA hardiness zone! Then, check out this tutorial on how to start seeds indoors if you need guidance. No greenhouse required! If you realize you’re running behind schedule, don’t worry. You can always buy and plant nursery seedlings at “transplant time” if you miss the ideal seed-starting window. Check out this post for tips on how to select the best seedlings at the nursery.
What types of vegetables should I grow in my fall or winter garden?
Fall is a marvelous time to grow cool season crops. Not sure what those are exactly? See a full list of cool season crops below.
The fall garden is a great opportunity for a second chance to grow things that maybe didn’t do well for you in early spring. You know, like that lettuce or broccoli that “bolted” on you (the process of going to flower then seed) when your dewy spring changed to sweltering summer overnight? Or, the things you forgot to plant or didn’t have space for in spring.
The nice thing about the fall garden is that immature seedlings are started while the days are still fairly long, sunny, and warm – helping them grow big and strong. However, they come into maturity to produce food later during cooler weather, which many of them prefer. In fact, some crops get even better and sweeter after a light frost, including kale, cabbage, carrots, turnips, beets, leeks, and radishes. The arrival of cooler weather and shorter days will slow or prevent bolting too.
Cool season crops include:
- Swiss Chard
- Brussels Sprouts
- Fava Beans
- Mustard Greens
- Asian greens
- Other leafy greens
- Onions and leeks
- Garlic (ready to harvest the following spring/summer)
Note that within the general groups of vegetables listed above, there can be many differences between members of the same type. For instance, certain broccoli and radish varieties are more or less heat tolerant or cold-hardy than others. Also, many of these vegetables aren’t exclusively cool season crops! Some of them can also be grown in the summer in mild climates, or with the right care and a thoughtful selection of varieties. Which leads us to our next point….
Decisions, decisions! How to decide what varieties are best for your garden
Let me share our process for seed shopping and choosing varieties to grow, which will hopefully help you tailor your selections too. Because I know we all need help narrowing it down, right?! There are SO many tempting and tantalizing varieties of vegetables, flowers, and herbs to grow. It can make seed shopping exciting but also a tad overwhelming – confusing even!
Twice per year, usually around the summer and winter solstice, we get out our seed storage containers to take inventory of what leftover seeds we have for the upcoming growing season. (Yes, you can still use “old” seeds for many years! Just sow a few extra seeds since their germination rates can decline.) We then ask ourselves: What do we want to grow again? Which less-successful things shall we skip? What are we out of? I make a list of the “have” and “need” before I start. Then we hit up several of our favorite places to buy organic, heirloom, and non-GMO garden seeds online and start to browse. We stock up on old favorites, as well as pick up some interesting new-to-us varieties.
Choosing what to grow in your garden is more than eyeballing what looks pretty or sounds good. Sure, that plays a significant role! But you also want to seek out things that will be happy and productive in your fall garden. Every variety of vegetable will have a description and unique characteristics. For example: frost-tolerant, heat-tolerant (slow to bolt), early maturing, natural resistance to certain diseases, “excellent for cold northern climates”, larger or tighter growing habits, soil temperature needs, and so on. Read those descriptions! Compare between a few varieties. You’ll also learn what works best for your garden with time and experimentation.
Because we have such a long frost-free winter growing season, we don’t have to worry about the “days to maturity” factor. On the contrary, we choose some varieties that will last in the garden as long as possible. For instance, leafy greens suitable for continual “cut and come again” harvesting for many months (as opposed to a one-and-done crop). Yet gardeners in northern climates with shorter growing seasons should heed those maturation dates more closely. If winter comes early in your garden, you may want to select quicker-developing types. Even if you do have a shorter growing season, there are many ways you can extend the life of your garden.
Extending the Growing Season
Does your garden swiftly change from scalding hot to chilly (threatening frost) in the fall? To be frank, those swinging conditions can make fall gardening with cool season crops a tad more challenging… but not impossible! With a few adjustments, you can easily extend your fall growing season by a month or two in each direction.
First of all, I suggest to get a jump start by sowing fall seeds indoors in the summer. While it is possible to start them outside, the seedlings won’t appreciate extreme heat and will be more prone to bolting early. Inside, you can provide them temperate climate-controlled conditions along with protection from birds, insects, and other undesirable elements. Just be sure to properly harden off indoor seedlings before transitioning them outdoors to prevent shock and damage! If your summers aren’t brutally hot and you can adequately protect them, feel free to try starting them outside if you prefer.
You can find our indoor seed starting and seedling care guide here. Or, check out these nine common but preventable seed-starting mistakes. Also, there is no shame in NOT starting from seed – and picking up nursery seedlings later in the summer instead.
Once seedlings are planted outside, hoops and row covers are fabulous season-extending tools to use. Draping shade cloth or frost blanket row covers over plants can protect them from impending weather extremes.
If early fall is still exceedingly hot in your area, tender cool season crops (such as lettuce and leafy greens) may appreciate a little shade cloth on the hottest days – along with ample moisture and mulch. As winter approaches, frost blankets on chilly nights can save your plants – allowing them to live for several more weeks to months. We also use our hoops and fine insect netting row covers to protect young seedlings from the wrath of birds and insects. Learn more about using hoops and row covers in this article, including various hoop options, frost blanket weights, shade cloth types, and more.
Planting time: out with the old, in with the new
When it comes time to plant your fall seedlings outside, you may have some tough decisions to make. Unless you have a large garden space, chances are your garden beds are still currently occupied by summer crops. It’s a personal decision when to pull what, but hopefully at least some shorter-lived plants are on their natural decline – such as summer squash, bush beans, or spring-planted annual flowers, herbs, or leafy greens. Even if your main garden space is full of things you don’t want to remove yet, you could always grow some fall crops in containers or fabric grow bags!
When removing old plants from the garden, we usually prefer to cut them out at the soil line and leave the roots in place. This is referred to as “no-till” gardening, and an article on that subject is coming next week. In the meantime, check out this one: “How to Amend & Fertilize Garden Bed Soil Between Seasons”. It covers how we prepare our garden soil with mild organic amendments and compost before planting new crops, along with a few tips on the transplanting process.
WHAT WE’RE GROWING: FALL & WINTER 2020
Without further ado, here is a full list of what we are growing this season. I’m not going to provide crazy in-depth descriptions for every single seed variety – but you should be able to find them with a quick Google search if you want to learn more. I also linked to most of them. Keep in mind that we have in-depth “how to grow” tutorials for many crops like carrots, radishes, fava beans, garlic, leafy greens, and more. I will link them in the appropriate sections as we go!
Brassicas (Broccoli and Cabbage Family)
Of all the heading brassicas, we’ve become increasingly hooked on growing cauliflower. At least in our garden, it has proven to be more reliable and less pest-prone than broccoli. Although we still love to grow broccoli too! Because both grow to be very large plants, we have to be more choosy about which ones we grow compared to other smaller cool season crops. Note that the cabbage family of plants is quite vast. In addition to the list below, many of the varieties I included in the “leafy greens” area are also considered brassicas.
- Goodman Cauliflower – A classic white cauliflower that has always grown beautifully for us. It is known to be an early-producer.
- Violetta Purple Cauliflower – We have grown “Purple of Sicily” cauliflower in the past. This year, we want to try out this popular but new-to-us purple cauliflower variety. It has gorgeous large purple heads, and is moderately tolerant to frost and light freezing.
- Green Macerta Cauliflower – Yet another beautiful and uniquely colored cauli that has done very well for us in the past! Not quite as large or early as some of the others, but a fun one for sure!
- Cheddar Cauliflower – We’ve grown white, green, and purple cauliflower – but never orange, yet! This will be a new addition for us, and perhaps one we are most excited for this fall garden season.
- Romanesco – With its trippy fractal design and chartreuse green color, romanesco is a true show-stopper. It is just as delicious as it is attractive! Romanesco tastes similar to cauliflower, but more nutty and mildly sweet.
- Belstar Broccoli – We have tried various kinds of broccoli over the years, but keep coming back to Belstar. It produces fairly early medium-size tight heads. Once the main head is harvested, the plant continues to provide a ton of small side shoots – like mini heads or broccolini. It has great heat tolerance so it never bolts on us, and overwinters well in mild climates.
- Dagan Brussels Sprouts – Can you believe we’ve never grown Brussels before? They’re one of our favorite winter veggies to eat (garlic and herb balsamic-glazed roasted Brussels, anyone?) but haven’t yet had homegrown. We’ve been hesitant since the plants take up a lot of room and are prone to aphids, but we’re up for the challenge!
- Red Acre Cabbage – This is a popular and early producer of tight medium size heads. They store well, are tasty, and great raw as slaw, cooked, or fermented into kraut. We can store red cabbage in the fridge for months after harvest without it going bad!
- Brunswick Cabbage – This heirloom variety of green cabbage is our usual go-to, but it does take longer to mature than some. However, it is extra cold-hardy! It produces large drumhead type (slightly flattened) heads that store well, and is awesome for all types of cabbage creations and recipes.
- Farao Cabbage – We’re going to do an experiment and compare this earlier-maturing green cabbage to our usual Brunswick to see what we prefer for our fall garden. It is also slightly smaller in size.
Leafy Greens & Asian Greens
Eeeek! I am so pumped for greens season. If you have been following our gardening shenanigans on Instagram for any amount of time, you likely know how obsessed we are with growing leafy greens. It is impossible to pick favorites in the garden, but leafy greens are definitely at the top of the list. Something about seeing the raised garden beds packed to the brim with a sea of compact, frilly, nutritious greens all in tidy rows makes my heart sing. Kale and collard greens also do well in our summer garden, but the greens options are endless in the fall and winter garden!
For a demonstration of how we make greens last and feed us for as long as possible, see this article about the cut-and-come-again harvest method.
- Kale: Grow kale! Kale gets sweeter after a light frost, some even can tolerate snow. We always grow several varieties. Our go-tos are Red Russian, Dazzling Blue (a Lacinato type) and Madeley. This year we’re also trying a new Scarlet Kale.
- Bok Choy: Joi Choi is my favorite leafy green to grow, ever. We also enjoy Prize Choy. Both have large thick stems and an open plant structure, perfect for prolonged cut-and-come-again harvesting. I only suggest tighter baby bok boy for folks with a shorter growing season, as the whole head needs to be harvested at once.
- Swiss chard: We’ll grow several, including beautiful Peppermint chard and Pink Passion Chard. While it is less showy, white-stemmed Fordhook swiss chard is great too. It is slower to bolt, has huge leaves, and continues to provide over a long growing season.
- Mustard Greens: Yum! If you like zesty, spicy, absolutely gorgeous mustard greens, Japanese Red Giant are a must-grow. Other favorites are Green Wave mustards (very prolific and cold tolerant), and frilly slow-bolting Red Splendor. Red Kingdom is a “no heat” (no spice) mustard that we’re trying for the first time.
- Lettuce: I’m not 100% sure which varieties we will plant in the fall garden yet, but we have a ton of miscellaneous packs like Coastal Star, Fusion, Sparx, and Green Towers. We try to select slow-bolting, open-head varieties of romaine lettuce for prolonged harvests. Salanova is a very popular type of lettuce too.
- Spinach: The jury is still out on this one, but we have many old packs to choose from! Flamingo spinach has been a favorite in years past.
- Arugula: We seed-saved some awesome arugula from a nursery plant one year. It gets huge and bushy and provides prolonged harvests, but I don’t know the exact variety.
- Other Asian Greens: We will definitely be planting Yukina Savoy (similar to tatsoi, but much larger), and possibly Vitamin Green, Komatsuna, and other random Asian greens we have seeds for. I feel like we’re running out of space already! Aaron is just shaking his head.
It is best to sow root vegetable seeds directly outside, as opposed to starting them in containers and transplanting them. They don’t like their roots disturbed and get shocked and stunted easily. Peas and beans also prefer to be directly sown. The one exception is beets. If you start beet seeds in a large enough container (such as small 4” pots), thin them early (trim out the unwanted sprouts), and transplant them before they get too large or root bound in the slightest, they usually grow just fine.
- Radishes: Give me all the radishes! A few of our favorite varieties include Bravo, Pink Beauty, Easter Egg, White Icicle, Cherry Belle, Zlata, Alpine, and Miyashige white daikon – though we often grow even more types than that. To learn all about growing radishes from seed to table, see this article.
- Carrots: We are always experimenting with new varieties of carrots, and love to plant a wide range of colors. This fall we’ll plant a combination of old favorites and newbies, including: Sweet Nantes, Cosmic Purple, Naval, Yellowstone, Sugarsnax, Danvers 126, and a fun rainbow Carnival blend . For tips on how to successfully grow carrots (and more of our favorite varieties) see this article.
- Salad turnips: Repeat favorites: Tokyo market (small round tender white turnips) and Hinona Kabu (really cool long and slender white turnips with purple tops).
- Beets: The beets that grow the best for us also happen to be the most badass-looking ones: Chioggia. Check out the bullseye photo below! We’ll also plant Touchstone Golden beets along Red Ace and Early Wonder.
- Fava Beans. Favas are wonderful. They’re an awesome soil-enriching cover crop, not to mention delicious and nutritious. We’ve had the most prolific success with the classic “Windsor” variety, though there are several other unique ones out there. Did you know the entire fava bean plant is edible, including the leaves? Read more about growing (and using!) fava beans and their plants here.
- Leeks. Garlic rust is a big problem here – an allium fungal disease that can also infect leeks. We are really excited to try the “Surfer” variety from Johnny’s in our fall garden this year. It supposedly has decent natural resistance to rust.
- Onions. Sometimes we start onions from seed, and sometimes we get started onion seedlings (not “sets”) from a local nursery. I’m not sure what we’ll do this year yet. Last year, our walla-walla onions kicked butt – and made the most delicious homemade onion powder ever!
- Purple Vienna Kohlrabi. I love this alien-like purple veggie. Kohlrabi is a member of the cabbage/brassica family, and tastes like a super sweet, crisp, juicy inner portion of a fat broccoli stem.
- Peas. We’ll probably pop in a row of sugar snap peas along a trellis somewhere, if we can carve out some space!
- Garlic. Garlic is a very cold-hardy crop, traditionally planted in the fall in most places. It overwinters well even in freezing conditions (especially hardneck garlic), and is ready to harvest the following late spring to early summer. We usually plant our garlic in October, but this year we’re going to try to plant it later in the winter in an attempt to stave off the dreaded garlic rust that always infects it. See this garlic-growing tutorial for more information, such as planting instructions, the difference between softneck and hardneck varieties, how to harvest and cure garlic, and more.
- Microgreens. Okay, these little guys aren’t going to be outside in the garden with the rest of our fall and winter garden crops – but they’re definitely worth a mention here! Especially if your climate gets too nasty to grow outside for long, you can always grow a batch of perky (and easy!) microgreens indoors. We grow trays of micros off and on all year, especially when our other greens aren’t yet producing or as virigourously. Learn all about growing microgreens here. We picked up a few new tasty-sounding organic microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests for this upcoming season.
And that is what we’re growing in our fall garden!
Oh my goodness, that just got me ridiculously excited for the upcoming growing season. How about you? Did that help, or just compound your “I want to grow it all” complex? I know, I’m sorry… While narrowing down your selections can be a challenge, figuring out where to plant it all is even harder! Over the years, you’ll learn which cool season vegetables do best for you – so you can give them priority real estate in your fall garden.
I haven’t decided exactly where everything will go just yet, but we’ll figure it out soon! I sketch out a planting plan for each garden season on a Homestead and Chill plot plan (shown below) as a way to stay organized during transplanting days, and also to keep as a record for following seasons. When choosing where to plant what, I consider a few factors:
- Proper spacing. Overcrowded plants are not happy plants! They compete for water, nutrients, airflow, and sun, and are also more prone to disease.
- Crop rotation. Where was this plant grown last in the garden? As best we can with limited space, we try to avoid growing the same thing in the same spot year after year.
- Where is the sun, or sources of shade? Keep taller plants behind shorter ones so as to not cast shade or block their light. For example, planting big bushy cauliflower plants or tall fava beans in the “back” (north) end of a bed with shorter crops like radishes and lettuce towards the south. This is especially important in the fall and winter garden, since the sunlight is already limited and so much lower on the horizon.
- Companion planting. Check out this article to learn more about companion planting – printable chart included!
Other Useful Resources to Explore:
- Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors
- How to Design & Build a Raised Garden Bed
- How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed: Build the Perfect Organic Soil
- A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Hobby Greenhouse
- How to Fertilize & Amend a Raised Garden Bed Before Planting (or Between Seasons)
- Garden Irrigation Solutions: DIY, Efficient, and Non-Toxic Watering Options
- Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost At Home
I am so excited to see you are on the Central Coast, me too. Near Paso Robles. So jelly of your garden, by the look of it, you are South of the Grade more near the coast. So beautiful. 🙂 PS love your row covers, I have been using PVC, way ugly.
How many people do you feed with your enormous amount of food/plants?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Bob, we mostly just feed ourselves with some going to neighbors here and there. We are vegetarian so we consume a lot of vegetables during lunch and dinner, we also like to preserve a lot of our harvest by fermenting.
Your cold weather crops are beautiful! Even though I try to be vigilant about cabbage worms, they seem to destroy my crop every year! What do y’all do to get such gorgeous cole veggies (and keep the bugs off)? tia
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Cat, fall and winter gardening is really our favorite time to garden as the vegetables and garden usually look great and we can produce a large amount of food for ourselves. To keep pests away, we usually don’t do a whole lot actually. We may have to do spot treatments for aphids here and there and while our brassicas are young we spray with BT a time or two to keep the cabbage worms in check. You probably need to spray BT on a semi regular basis to keep the cabbage worm population down in your garden. Have you checked out our article on 8 Organic Ways to Get Rid of Cabbage Worms & Cabbage Moths? Hope that helps and good luck!
I’m thinking of starting my fall seeds in my green house and transplant in October. Do you think it’s too hot in Chico Ca to start my seeds now in August in a green house? Or should I start them outside?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Erin, since Chico will still be quite hot for the next two months, starting seeds in a greenhouse may be too hot for seed starting. Does your greenhouse get any shade during the day? Do you have shade cloth that you can set up in the greenhouse to reduce the amount of sunlight that filters through or do you have fans inside that help circulate air? I would shoot for morning to mid day sun with mid to late afternoon shade if you have an area that would allow for this. With warm weather you are going to be battling keeping your seedlings watered as their small amount of soil can dry quickly in hot weather. You can always start your seeds indoors on a heat mat and bring them outside once they sprout so they can be exposed to light without getting too leggy. Hope that helps and let us know how it turns out or if you have any more questions, good luck!
Hi there! I’m starting my first small raised bed garden this fall. Your website has been a wonderful source of information and inspiration.
Since I don’t have space to setup grow lights inside or a greenhouse, I’m planning to direct sow the seeds for my fall vegetables. Since my zone is 9b / central Florida I’m pretty sure I’ll have plenty of growing time to harvest, but am I making a mistake by direct sowing instead of starting seedlings? What things should I be on the lookout for with direct sowing? Thank you!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hey TByrd, glad you’re finding the website useful and thank you for checking it out! I would consider germinating your seeds indoors on top of a heat mat and bringing them outside once they sprout to get sunlight. From there you can let the seedlings grow until they need to be transplanted or potted up into a larger container. If you choose to direct sow or even once seedlings are planted out, be aware of birds or other animals who may like to snack on tender seedlings or sprouts. Also insects such as pill bugs or snails will make quick work of small seedlings or sprouts. It just depends on the pests that are in your area and if they are active in your yard/garden or not. Hope that helps and good luck on your gardening adventure!
Pretty sure you have addressed this question before, but I scrolled through some Instagram posts and articles on here without finding the answer to my question. I also searched my emails, without luck.
I’ve been subscribed to your weekly newsletter for quite awhile, and totally enjoy your weekly blog posts as well as your IG content. Unfortunately I am unable to find your first email that includes the planning kit. Is there a way I can get get it again?
Thank you in advance !
Hi Autem – There is a link for it at the bottom of every weekly newsletter, so check this morning’s email – bottom footer area! Thanks for being a subscriber!
Just discovered your site, and all I can say is “Thank you!” It is lovely and so informative for a BRAND new gardener like me. I wanted to know where you bought your row covers, and how you set them up? If it is on the site, please forgive me, I am just getting started with reading EVERYTHING, lol.
Hey there, and welcome! Yes, I have an article specifically about hoops and row covers right here! Enjoy, and happy growing!
I recently discovered this site and it has totally transformed my garden (and life). thank you for all of the incredibly informative posts you put out!
Once again, it’s like you read my mind! Just the other day I was looking over what to plant for fall and thought, “I wonder if she’ll put out a planting guide.” Thank you so much for the info–especially your plot plan. It helps to get everything ready and organized. Keep up the good work, sister. Your blog is the best!
By the way, have you ever tried growing winter squash? Any pros/cons we should be aware of?
Hey there! Soooo, despite the confusing name, winter squash are grown in the summer along with zucchini and summer squash. They are warm-season crops, and are simply called “winter squash” because they’re hard and store well – for many months, into the winter. Because they’re so firm they take longer to cook and are usually prepared in more savory/roasted/baked/stew applications – also perfect for winter. We have grown butternut and pumpkin in the past, but the plants get quite large, only produce a couple squash each, and they often take longer to fully mature (into the fall, especially the bigger ones). Our plants usually get wrecked with powdery mildew by then, plus we need that space to grow other things. When we have a larger garden in the future we’ll grow more winte squash, but right now they simply aren’t worth the valuable real estate for us!
Good to know. Clearly I need to do more research on how/when to grow these guys. Lol!