How to Plant a Fall Garden

When people hear the word “garden,” many think of a lush, green patch in the heat of summer. Truth be told, gardens are a year-long thing. It will just look different with each season. Several simple steps can be taken to prepare for your fall garden.

As soon as the heat dies down and the days become shorter, it’s easy to spend less time in your garden. But the fall really is a great time to prepare for the months ahead and you can still see great results in your garden through the fall months.

Prepare for Your Fall Garden

The first step in getting your garden ready to transition from summer to fall is to prepare everything. This step can help keep you organized while you go through the process, and it’ll help ensure you’re not missing any steps or items. 

Clear Out All  Your Annuals

Annuals are only good for one growing season. They’ve had their moment in the sun, so to say, and once they’ve lost their luster, they won’t be back. Clear them out of your garden in order to make room for new plants. By this time, you should be able to just grab the flowers by the stalks close to the soil and pull everything up relatively easily. If not,  you may have to break out your garden tools and dig your annuals up. As a bonus, they make a great addition to your compost bin or pile. 

1 Autumn Joy Sedum
2020 09 26 – Autumn Joy by Les Hutchinson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Autumn Joy Sedum bush, purple coneflowers and yellow daisies are excellent fall flowers that will add a mix of color to your garden. 

Clear Out Weeds and Debris

It’s important to keep weeding throughout the fall months. Soon no more growing will take place so it’s best to clear out all the weeds now. Now is a good time to get rid of dead or diseased plants, too.

The fall months are also a good time to get your entire yard cleaned up before the winter and any snow hits. A weed eater will help you prepare your lawn for the months to come.

While you want to clear out weeds and other debris from your fall garden, make sure to leave some leaves. They’ll provide some added nutrients to the soil in your garden and help prepare it for the next growing season.

Since this can be a large project to take on on your own, you can easily break it up into sections and concentrate on one section at a time. For example, you could take one day and pull out all of your annuals. The next day, you could go out and weed before cleaning up any stray debris that is left. All of your trimmings, dead or dying plants, and grass pieces can go into your compost. Avoid adding sticks or things that won’t break down easily. 

Inspect and Lightly Trim Your Perennials 

Once you have a clean area, go and take a close look at your perennials. You should be cleaning up around them at this point too, so it’s not hard to look for signs of problems. Prune back your perennials and trim any unruly bushes. If some of your perennials are getting far too large to handle, you can divide them and put them in other areas or trade your neighbors for something new. 

While you may be tempted to get out the shears and prune all of your bushes and flowers so they look neat and tidy, trimming or pruning them too early can lead them open and vulnerable to cold. It also invites decay, insects, and diseases in. Ideally, you’ll wait until the temperatures drop in the late family months to get your final, big trim on  your perennials. 

Mix in Compost to Refresh the Soil 

After you’ve pulled all your dead or dying plants and flowers and cleaned up the bulk of the debris, you want to refresh the soil. You can do this by mixing in a load of fresh compost or other organic materials to inject nutrients into the soil. If you have a larger compost tumbler on-hand, this is an easy process. Summer annuals and warm-season vegetables are heavy feeders, and this can tire out the soil by pulling out most of the healthy nutrients and bacteria. 

By adding a thick layer of compost and mixing it well into the soil, you’re setting up your fall crops for strong growth. Also, a rich soil that is chock full of good types of bacteria can help strengthen your plant’s defenses against fungi and pests, so they’ll be more ready to come back strong if you get a small infestation. 

Plant Your Fall Flowers or Plants

Fall is an ideal time to plant any trees or shrubs you want. The soil will still be warm enough for the roots to dig in and get established. Once planted, they’ll have several weeks to acclimate before the winter months and cold really hit.

Fall is also a good time to plant spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils, irises and tulips in your fall garden. They should be planted well before the first frost. Pick a sunny spot and dig a hol about two times deeper than the bulb is tall. Plant with the pointed end facing up. Remember to check the directions in the package as each flower and bulb is different.

At this time you should also dig up your summer flowering bulbs, such as dahlias and gladiolus. Once you locate and dig them up, store them in containers full of dry, fresh soil. Make sure to layer them in containers so they don’t touch. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry room, such as in a basement or garage.

If you’re in an area that experiences several good fall months, you can find beautiful plants that will adorn your garden with gorgeous colors. There are an assortment of cool weather flowers that will thrive in the fall months and add some unexpected color to your garden. Who says that only the summer should be filled with beautiful flowers?

Here’s a list of some great fall garden plants:

  • AsterThese plants grow best when you put them in a place that gets full, direct sun for six to eight hours a day. If you don’t have a spot like this, look for cultivars that tolerate partial shade. Keep in mind that this will result in fewer flowers. The soil should be loamy and well-drained. Sandy soil will result in wilt and clay-based soil will result in rot. If you have these types of soil, amend them before you plant.    
  • Celosia (cock’s comb)Cock’s comb requires full, direct sun for six to eight hours a day at a minimum. The soil should be very nutrient-rich and drain well after you water it to encourage strong growth. You’ll want to apply liquid fertilizer once every few weeks, especially if it gets really hot and humid out. Temperatures above 95°F and lots of rain can result in slow, stunted growth for this plant.  
  • Coneflower Coneflower is a plant that prefers to be in a very well-drained soil. They produce the most flowers and bloom the best in full sun, but they can tolerate partial shade if you’re willing to sacrifice some flowers. They can get two to four feet tall at full maturity, and they can tolerate poor soil conditions. However, they prefer to be a rich soil with a lot of organic matter mixed in.
  • CrotonCroton plants hail from the tropics, so it’s no surprise that they like a huge amount of sun every day. Some species can tolerate partial shade without damage. The amount of sun they get directly impacts how colorful the leaves are, so you want more light. They can tolerate a range of soil conditions without a problem, but they do like higher humidity levels to thrive. They don’t produce flowers, but the foliage is colorful enough.
  • GoldenrodIn the wild, Goldenrod will thrive in a huge range of rocky, poor, or sandy soil. However, it does prefer to be in a slightly acidic, humusy soil that drains very well each time you water it. They thrive in full sun, but they can also do decently in partial shade. You won’t fertilize this plant as it can lead to a very leggy plant with spindly growth. Also, don’t water it a lot as it prefers drier soils, and it tolerates drought well.
  • PansiesPansies are a plucky plant that love the cooler fall weather, so you’ll see them a lot in spring and fall.They prefer to be in a well-drained but rich soil that has a very high amount of organic matter mixed in. They do well in partial shade to full sun, especially if you live south of zone seven. In these areas, the hot afternoon sun can stunt flower production.
  • Purple Fountain GrassYou can grow this ornamental grass in almost any soil type without an issue, and this makes it nice for novice gardeners. It does extremely well if you plant it in well-drained but rich soil. You can plant them at any point during the year, but they do best in the cooler months of fall and spring. It enjoys having full sunlight, but it can tolerate some shade without any damage.
  • SedumBetter known as stonecrop flower, sedum does best in partial to full sun. So, you have some flexibility with it. You can get creeping types that prefer partial shade or taller types that like full sun. They like a neutral soil mixture that drains well, and the pH levels should range from neutral to slightly acidic. Heavy, wet, clay-based soils can cause root rot.
  • SunflowerSunflowers love bright, full sunshine. The soil should drain well but stay evenly moist throughout the growing season.The amount of space you have to give each plant will depend on the type you grow. Single-flowered types will need far less space than branching types that produce several different blooms on a single flower.

You can’t forget about fall mums. Chrysanthemums are maybe the most recognizable fall flower. While mums can be planted any season, if you want to plant mums as perennials, it’s best to do it in the spring months so they have time to take root. If you’re focusing on your fall garden, it might just be best to treat your mums as an annual and enjoy their warm, rich colors for a few months.

Different colored fall mums, plumed cockscomb and silver mound add color to a fall garden.

If you’re planning to plant your fall mums in your garden, make sure to do it as soon as you can. Plant them somewhere where they will receive plenty of sun and make sure to water them well. In order to protect them from the colder months, cover with plenty of mulch.

Depending on how severe your region’s winter is, your mums may be there come spring. If they don’t make it through the winter, you can try again with a new assortment of colors in the spring and enjoy them for several seasons!

Fall mums come in a variety of colors and look great either planted or kept in containers. 

It’s also absolutely fine if you choose to keep your mums in containers for the fall garden months. They would look great sitting near your garden or on your front steps or back porch. The whole point is to enjoy the bright yellow, vibrant rust and purple colors!

3 Purple Fountain Grass
Purple Fountain Grass by John Tann / CC BY 2.0 Purple fountain grass can get impressively high and wide, and this makes it an excellent choice for a fall garden as a border.

This great variety will offer many different colors and textures to your garden! They might not be around as long as spring and summer flowers, but they’ll sure add some unexpected beauty and color to the often gray fall days!

If you’d like to plant some vegetables, there are several that actually grow well in cooler weather. Leafy vegetables like kale, cabbage and lettuce don’t have a very long growing season, making them ideal vegetables to grow during the fall months. It’s best to plant these in August and harvest come fall.

Plant Your Cool-Season Fall Garden Vegetables

This may surprise you, but fall is an excellent time to sneak in a cool season fall garden vegetable or two. You can either start these crops earlier in the fall months to get a harvest in before the first frost comes along, or you can plant them and harvest them straight away in the spring. Top fall garden vegetables include but are not limited to: 

  • Broccoli – Ideally, you’ll plant any broccoli in an area that gets at least six hours of sunlight every day. The soil should be very fertile but drain well after every watering session, and you want to make a point to try and keep the soil moist all of the time. Don’t let it dry out because this can negatively impact your broccoli growth. Adding a layer of mulch will help keep the soil moist and cool. The pH levels should range between 6.0 and 7.0 to discourage clubroot disease.
  • Brussels Sprouts Brussels sprouts are one plant that need consistently moist soil all of the time to thrive. They love to be in areas that get full, direct sunlight too. The soil should also be very rich. However, these plants and other plants in the cabbage family like broccoli or kale are very vulnerable to soil-borne diseases. So, you can combat this by rotating them through different raes of your garden each season.
  • Cabbage – Just like most cool-season vegetables, cabbage likes to have six hours of sunlight every day at a minimum with more being preferred. They require well-drained but very fertile soil that has a host of organic matter mixed in. The pH should stay between 6.5 and 6.8 to encourage optimal growth. This level will also help to discourage clubroot disease from developing, so you can get a more full and healthy crop.
  • Carrots – Carrots prefer to get full sun, but they also like slightly cooler soil. So, adding a layer or mulch can help create the best growing conditions. Also, taller neighboring plants can help shade the soil to keep it cool. Ideally, you’ll give your carrots at least an inch of water a week, if not more. The soil should drain well and be packed full of nutrients.
  • Cauliflower Plant your cauliflower in full sun in a well-drained and rich soil. Try to keep the pH levels between six and seven for healthy growth. Before you plant, you should till the soil to loosen up the top 12 to 15-inches before mixing in a nutrient-rich compost into the top six inches of soil. This will give the plants all of the nutrients it needs to thrive.
  • CilantroCilantro requires full sun unless you’re in southern planting zones. If you are, plant it in light shade to prevent it from bolting quickly. It does best when you have it in moist but well-draining soil. You want to space the plants between six and eight-inches apart to ensure they don’t crowd eachother out, and you can have successive sowings every two or three weeks to have fresh cilantro all fall long.
  • Kale – Kale can tolerate partial shade without a problem, but they do prefer full sun if you have a space for them. Any plants that get less than six hours of sunlight every day won’t be as leafy or stocky as those that get more sunlight. They like very fertile soil, and this is a plant that grows very rapidly when you keep the soil consistently moist but not saturated.
  • Kohlrabi – This cool-season plant likes well-drained but rich soil and a position in the full sun. In the North, you can plant it to get a spring or fall harvest. In the South, this will give you a winter harvest. You should sow it in midsummer to get a fall crop. Make sure the soil stays moist but not saturated because this plant doesn’t like to sit in wet areas.
  • Leeks Leeks are well-suited for cultivation in areas that get four distinct seasons and have cooler summer weather like in Wisconsin. They like to be in an area that gets six to eight hours of sunlight every day at a minimum, and the soil should drain well but be rich in organic matter. This is a slighlty long season crop at 80 to 120 days from the time you plant it.
  • Parsley – You want to space out your parsley plants at least six to eight inches apart in an area that gets full sun. The soil should be very nutrient-rich to support healthy growth, and you want the pH levels to stay between 5.5 and 6.7 throughout the growing season. If you’re in a warm climate, place them in partial shade to avoid scorching them. Before you plant them, mix in several inches of aged compost into the soil to increase the nutrient density.
  • Radicchio – This is a very hardy cool-season crop that you can plant as early as you can work the soil. It grows best in the early spring or fall months when the temperatures hover between 60°F and 65°F. They like to have full sun unless you’re in a warmer environment, then they like partial shade. Make sure the soil stays slightly moist and fertilize with a liquid plant food every few weeks.
  • Radishes – Pick out a sight for your radishes that gets a minimum of six hours of sunlight every day. The soil should be very loose, light, and drain well after you water it with a pH between 5.8 and 6.8. Also, you’ll want to space your plants out six to eight inches to give them ample room to grow without crowding them and making them compete for nutrients. Don’t be afraid to till the soil and add nutrients in before you plant them either.
  • Turnips – Turnips generally require that you put them in an area that gets plenty of sun, but they cna tolerate shade if you want to harvest them for their greens. You don’t have to do a lot to prepare the soil for the plants except ensure that it drains well after you water it. You won’t have to add compost, but a layer of mulch is appreciated to help keep the soil temperatures cooler. 

4 Fall Garden
Garden by Martha Heinemann Bixby / CC BY-NC 2.0 Planting a fall garden is an excellent way to get more use out of your yard while ensuring that you have delicious fresh vegetables right up to the first frost of the season.

Add a Layer of Mulch

We highly recommend adding a thicker layer of mulch to your flower beds or gardens. Applying this layer of mulch later in the season can help retain moisture, block weeds from growing, and help insulate the soil when the temperature drops. Mulch can also give you a much longer growing season, and this allows you to sneak an additional crop or two in. Leaves act like a great substitute if you don’t have mulch handy, and a thick layer of leaves will lend the same benefits to your garden. They break down and add nutrients to the soil, and it gives you a place to clean them out of your yard. 

Switch Around

Any potted plants, such as herbs, can and should be moved indoors, especially once the temperature starts dropping below 50 degrees at night. This way, you can enjoy herbs all year long!

Since you’re taking your plants out of one environment into another, it’s important to give them a little TLC to adjust. Make sure your plants get plenty of sunlight while inside. If your region is going to be dealing with many dark days come winter, you may want to invest in a grow light.

The fall time is also a good time to divide perennials. That way you can share with friends and neighbors and dividing them will actually help recharge the plants so they’ll be ready to go next growing season.

Autumn Joy Sedum bush, purple coneflowers and yellow daisies are excellent fall flowers that will add a mix of color to your garden. 

Protect Your Fall Garden Plants and Keep an Eye for Diseases 

Transitioning your garden from summer to fall is the perfect time to look out for any potential problems you could have, like a pest infestation or diseased plants. Look for any blotchy leaves and remove them to stop them from spreading. Rain, insects, and even wind can transmit some diseases, so catching them early is key to keeping your plants healthy. 

This is also the time to consider protecting your plants. One way to ensure they don’t get too cold is to invest in frost covers for your flowers, plants, or vegetables that are still outside. Make sure you get a large enough cover so you don’t leave anything out to freeze or get damaged enough that you have to cut it off. 

Bottom Line

It’s true that summer’s over, but don’t give up on your garden!  By following these steps, you’ll be able to enjoy your garden through the fall months and prepare your fall garden for the winter months. Come spring, you’ll be ready for another successful growing season!

Garden Transition 1 Garden Transition 2