If you want an abundant fall vegetable garden, you should start planning now. Nope, you didn't read that wrong.
And why would you want a fall garden? Fewer insects and diseases, cooler weather and an extra two months or more of delicious garden-fresh food are among the reasons.
The keys to planning your fall garden are plant selection, space and timing. You'll want to plant cold-weather crops that mature quickly, and for some crops, such as spinach and lettuce, using starts instead of seeds will ensure a longer harvest. The number of days to harvest is particularly critical in the fall as plants grow more slowly as daylight decreases, adding up to 1-2 weeks to an estimated harvest date.
While many people associate a cold-weather garden with salad greens, you can grow a wide variety of other vegetables in the fall. These include broccoli, collard and mustard greens, kale, radishes, bok choy, tatsoi and turnips (Brassica family); peas and beans (legumes); beets, spinach and chard (amaranths); and carrots (umbellifers).
Regarding space, any bed devoted to a spring crop can host a fall crop. While tomatoes, peppers and other warm-weather crops hold their garden real estate from May until fall, a bed that hosts broccoli in the spring can produce a bounty of bush beans in the fall, while the space where you grew spring kale and greens can be used for a fall crop of snow peas. Spring-planted beets can yield their space to lettuce.
Even a bed of garlic, harvested in early July, can be replanted with a fall crop. That's why it's important to think about what fall crops you want when you plan your late spring and summer garden, and where they will go.
You also need to rotate your crops by family, so you aren't planting the same family of vegetables in the same area in both spring and fall or from one growing season to the next. While somewhat less effective in smaller gardens, rotating crops is still a basic principle for combating buildups of pests or disease pathogens specific to those vegetable families, as well as for balancing nutrient outtake from the soil. Creating a simple garden map will help you keep track of what's planted where from season to season.
Lastly, timing your planting is critical to get a full fall crop. Vegetative growth slows dramatically when ambient sunlight falls below 10 hours a day, which means you want your plants to reach maturity by the first week of November. Precisely when you plant depends on your U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone (https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov).
In the Champlain Valley (zone 5a) where I live, I need to get my lettuce and spinach starts in no later than Sept. 1 and bush bean and snow pea seeds by Aug. 1 for harvest through early November. I plant seeds for carrots and beets by July 1. Planting times for gardeners in central Vermont (zone 4b) and the Northeast Kingdom (zone 3b) will be slightly earlier.
You can harvest most green crops through early November although with the protection offered by season extenders such as low tunnels, you may be able to harvest well into December and even January. Kale, spinach and collards are particularly cold-hearty although I'll never forget the heads of broccoli I harvested in December one year, conveniently pre-frozen on the stalk. Root crops can last well into the winter if heavily mulched.
Few things will delight family and friends more than a fresh garden salad or vegetables in the throes of winter. But you need to plan now.
Gordon Clark is a University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener.