While spring gardens are great, fall gardens are our favorite! We've noticed fewer fall gardeners than spring gardeners, however, and we want people to know that they shouldn't skip out on the wonderful opportunity of abundance that the fall garden is.
Why Do We Love Fall Gardens in Central Texas?
While we love gardening year-round, there's so much diversity in the fall garden. The cooler temperatures mean that you won't have as many bugs to contend with, and fall gardens are easier to maintain than spring or summer gardens. Rainfall is usually more abundant this time of year, and many of the plants you'll grow like kales, mustards, lettuces, and leafy greens are cut-and-come-again plants. Also, a lot of our favorite wild and weedy plants make an appearance in the fall too, blanketing the ground and finding their way into our salads.
When and What to Plant in your Central Texas Fall Garden
Timing is important with fall gardens, and in Central Texas, you want to start planning your fall garden in the summer. It may feel strange to think about cool-weather crops when it's still 100+ degrees outside, but that's the best way to get a jump start on the season and maximize your fall garden harvest.
To start, you want to know your average first frost date, and this tool will help with that. Just enter your zip code and you'll get an estimation based on historical weather data for your area.
For us, our average first frost date is in mid November. Once you know your average first frost date, you can gauge how many frost free days you likely have left. Then you can consider a particular crop's "days to maturity" and plan your plantings based on what you have enough time to grow. For example, if the first frost is 70 days away, choose plants that can mature in this time frame. Also know that this is all good information, but every garden is different. Temperature, humidity, day length, soil structure, the orientation of your garden, and access to water, sunlight and nutrients are all factors in the plant's lifecycle. So...make smart planting choices and plant the right crops for the right season, but don't stress too much about all the details. Actual year-to-year frost dates can vary wildly, so the most important thing is to put plants and seeds in the ground. If you don't do that, you've got nothing. And if we get an early frost or an extended period of heat, you can always take measures to protect your plants with shade cloths or frost covers.
Below is a rough idea of when we plant things in Central Texas for a fall harvest, but it's important to be a conscious observer in your landscape as well. We're always changing things up based on what's happening in our garden at the time and whatever the weather decides to do that year. So...start with a plan, but be flexible. Take good notes based on your experiences, learn, adapt, and switch things up as needed. With gardening, there's always an element of trial and error and that's what keeps it fun and interesting!
It's also worth mentioning that the USDA just updated their plant hardiness zone map and Central Texas is now in zone 9a. The 2023 map includes data measured at weather stations from 1991 to 2020. We feel like we've been kinda gardening this way anyway, but it's interesting to see it changed.
Amend garden beds with compost and slow-release granular fertilizer to prepare for fall planting. If you haven't already, cover all bare soil with a layer of mulch.
Prune back perennials and herbs so they have a chance to bush out in the fall.
Things to consider planting. This is not an exhaustive list - just some ideas:
Warm-weather annuals - It's a good idea to succession plant veggies like squash, corn, beans, okra, melons, cucumbers, and basils, and this is a good time to plant another round for a fall crop. This is also when you can add in another round of warm weather nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Plant them as transplants so they have enough time to produce. You can take cuttings off your spring tomato plants to have quick clones to put in the ground this time of year. Or if starting new nightshades from seed in the summer, just start them early enough (it takes 6-8 weeks from seed to transplant) so that you have good-sized plants to put in the ground and they have ample time to develop and produce before the first freeze. Once the freeze comes, the season for these plants has passed. It's not worth trying to protect them over the winter.
Frost-tender perennials - We also love growing a wide range of tropical perennials throughout the heat of the summer. We'll save all the specifics for a different post, but many of these (like lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, curry trees, moringa trees, ginger, galangal, turmeric, and many others) can be overwintered in the ground and will come back if well-mulched.
Cool-weather annuals - Fall is a great time for herbs and edible flowers, and you can start seeds like calendula, chamomile, borage, nasturtiums, and pansies. Borage, chamomile, and nasturtiums can only survive light freezes, so they may not survive into the winter depending on what type of season we get. But if you start them now, you'll have a long-enough growing window to get plenty of blooms.
Roots - beets, leeks, and onions can all be direct sowed right now. You can also start leek and onion seeds in starter pots for transplanting out into the garden a bit later on.
Frost-hardy plants - If you're growing from seed, late July - August is the time to start brassica seeds (think broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choi, arugula). You can start your seeds indoors under grow lights. You can also start them outdoors on a back porch or a protected area, but your seedlings will need a lot more babying. Things to consider are that soil must stay consistently moist for the seeds to germinate, your seedlings will need sufficient light so they don't get leggy, and you'll need to protect your seedlings from heavy rainfall and pest pressure (in the heat, cabbage worms will find your plants quick). Another option is to buy transplants from a local nursery (like us!) in September, which is what many gardeners opt to do.
September - October
This is go-time for fall gardens!
Things to consider planting. This is not an exhaustive list - just some ideas:
Direct sow sweet peas, fava beans, and root crops like beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips. Swiss chard and cool-weather leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, mustards, and others can be direct sowed or planted out as transplants. To ensure we get a good harvest of leafy greens throughout the season, we like to have both transplants and seeds ready to go if we can.
Plant your transplants of cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts). Even though it will likely still be quite hot in the garden this time of year, you want them to get acclimated well before the first freeze. You also want to give them a chance to get settled in and develop because their growth will slow down as the days get shorter.
Plant wildflower seeds from October until Thanksgiving. We also like sprinkling seeds of poppies, california poppies, larkspurs, cilantro, and arugula. Getting all these established in your landscape is fun because they'll self-seed and you'll see them pop up again and again.
Plant winter cover crops. We like red clover.
This is a great time to plant onion seeds (if growing onions from sets, you can wait a few months).
mid October - November is ideal for garlic bulbs.
November throughout Winter
Continue succession planting cool-season veggies mentioned above. Fall is also the best time to plant perennials, trees, and shrubs
Some Tips for Extending Your Growing Season:
Understand the killing temperature for different vegetables
Also, observe the plants in your garden and how they respond to freezing temperatures. Here and Here is some information about the winter hardiness of different vegetables. And here is part 1 and part 2 of our garden assessment after the craziest year we've had on record so far (snowpocalypse 2021). This is all helpful information, but just like "days to maturity," killing temperatures vary a lot from garden to garden. Stronger plants grown in rich, healthy, well-mulched soil are much more resilient. Plants grown in the ground as opposed to raised beds also survive lower temperatures because their root system is below ground. Acclimation also plays a huge role in whether or not plants survive a freeze. In years where we have a good cold period before a freeze, frost-hardy vegetables will have a chance to acclimate to cold conditions and will likely bounce back from a freeze. But if we have one of those years where it's endlessly hot and then abruptly cold, well, time to get your frost covers ready.
Have some sort of frost protection on hand
There's no telling what Mother Nature will do, so it's a good idea to consider how you'll protect your garden if an extreme freeze sweeps through. It's great to have hoops with row covers, frost blankets, and/or tarps that you can drape over and clamp on. You can makeshift the hoops with pvc, masonry wire, or repurposed old metal fencing. You can also use plastic storage bins, buckets, plastic lettuce tubs weighed down with bricks, jars, tomato cages laid on their sides with old shower curtains on top. Use what you have. That's what we do, and we always save much of our garden. You just want to keep the surface of the cover from touching the plants and you want to make sure the material touches the ground all around so the cold air can't get in. You're basically making a tent for your plants. If you have a bunch of young plants scattered around the garden, mason jars work great. And dumping a bunch of leaves on everything to help insulate works wonders!
Protect your Brassicas from Cabbage Worms
The main pest you'll have to deal with in your fall garden is cabbage worms, which eat brassica plants. Pest pressure won't be as intense once it gets properly cold. But when temperatures are warm, these guys can turn your garden into a hole-riddled mess in no time. Here are some of our tips for dealing with cabbage worms.
Aphids are another pest that'll turn up, but a blast of water is usually all that's needed to knock them off your leaves. A soapy water spray works too.
Also, don't forget that interplanting herbs and flowers helps a lot with pest control because many of these plants are host plants to beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. Everything just works so much better when you treat your garden as an ecosystem.