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Secrets to a Thriving Fall Vegetable Garden in WNC

You can grow a lot around here (WNC) in fall and even into winter. Fall gardens include many wonderful vegetables like: onions, peas, cabbage, radishes, beets, rutabagas, spinach, turnips, mustard, kohlrabi, arugula, radicchio, lettuce, mache, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, and Swiss chard. Some vegetables reputedly taste even better when grown in the fall, and collards and kale are said to be sweeter following the first frost. Garlic is planted in Oct./Nov. for harvest the following summer.

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Tips for Growing Vegetables in the Fall:

  • Check germination and days to harvest time on the seed packets so you know when to expect plants to become ready for harvest. As an example, radishes are quick producing plants so you can expect them to be ready within 25 to 30 days. It does depend on the type of radish you are planting so you would want to check the back of your seed packet.
  • Use good soil in your beds. Soil plays an important part in the success of your garden. Low quality soil has a poor concentration of pH balance and will eventually kill your plants. It may not happen this year but eventually the pH balance will be so poor that the plants won't be able to survive. You can purchase specialty soil made for home vegetable gardening from most nurseries but it isn't difficult to mix your own soil at home.  You can even ask a nursery worker what they suggest for mixing. Typically you'll do equal parts of fertilizer to soil and add in things like mulch, perlite, vermiculate, sand or shell materials.
  • Fertilize your crop using a product that is safe for vegetables such as chicken manure, miracle grow or homemade fertilizer. Fertilizing needs vary by the type of plant so check the back of your seed packet for fertilizing suggestions.

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The secret to having a successful fall vegetable garden is to have a well thought out plan. You must use the summer season to carry over plants into the fall months, replace plants that you pull up and add fall crops to your beds for a continuous supply of produce.

Many vegetables are well adapted to planting in the summer for fall harvest. Planting a fall garden will extend the gardening season so you can continue to harvest fresh produce after earlier crops have finished. The fall harvest can be extended even further by providing protection from early frosts or by planting in cold frames or hotbeds.

Many cool-season vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, produce their best flavor and quality when they mature during cool weather. In North Carolina, the spring temperatures often heat up quickly. Vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach, tend to bolt or develop bitter flavor when they mature during hot summer weather.

Growing a productive fall vegetable garden requires thoughtful planning and good cultural practices. July and August are the main planting times for the fall garden. Table 1 provides recommended planting dates. Vegetables that have a 60 to 80 day maturity cycle should be planted around August 1 in the piedmont. Planting of quick maturing vegetables, such as turnips and leafy greens, can be delayed until September. Keep in mind that the planting dates can be as much as 7 to 10 days earlier in western North Carolina and 7 to 10 days later in the eastern North Carolina. Be sure to adjust the planting dates for your specific location. For a more accurate planting schedule, consult Figure 1 to determine the average date of the first killing frost in the fall. Count backwards from the frost date, using the number of days to maturity to determine the best time to plant in your area.


Preparing the Site

Before preparing the soil for a fall garden, you must decide what to do with the remains of the spring garden. In most cases, the decision is not difficult because the cool-season crops have already matured and the warm-season vegetables are beginning to look ragged. Remove the previous crop residue and any weed growth. Prepare the soil by tilling or spading to a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches.

If the spring crops were heavily fertilized, you may not need to make an initial pre-plant fertilization. Otherwise, 1 to 2 lb of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 may be applied per 100 ft2 of bed space. Thoroughly incorporate the fertilizer.


Planting the Fall Garden

Direct seeding (planting seeds rather than using transplants) for crops such as broccoli, cabbage, and collards is often used in the fall. However, the success of this planting method depends on having adequate moisture available to keep the young seedlings actively growing after germination. If you do not have an irrigation source available, you would be wise to buy vegetable transplants from a local garden center.

Seeds should be planted deeper in the fall because the moisture level is lower in the soil and the surface temperature is higher. In many cases, the planting depth may be 1 1/2 to 2 times as deep as for spring planting of the same crop.

Our summers can be hot and dry. Soils may form a hard crust over the seeds which can interfere with seed germination, particularly in heavy clay soil. Seeds of lettuce and spinach will not germinate if the soil temperature exceed 85 oF. You may need to cover the seeded area with burlap cloth, newspapers, or boards to keep the soil cool and moist. Shading the soil or using a light mulch over the seed row will help keep the temperatures more favorable for germination. The shading material must be removed as soon as the seeds begin to germinate. Another useful technique is to open a furrow, seed, and cover the seeds with potting soil or vermuclite. Young transplants may also benefit from light shading for the first few days after transplanting.


Most vegetables require 1 inch of water per week. It's best to make a single watering that penetrates deeply rather than frequent shallow applications. Young seedlings and germinating seeds may need more frequent, light waterings. Do not allow seedlings to dry out excessively. New transplants may also benefit from frequent light waterings until they develop new roots.

Many fall maturing vegetables benefit from sidedressing with nitrogen just as do spring maturing vegetables. Most leafy vegetables will benefit from an application of nitrogen three and six weeks after planting.

Insects and Diseases

It is not uncommon for insects and diseases to be more abundant in the fall. Most problems from insects and diseases result from a buildup in their populations during the spring and summer. There is hope of keeping these pests at tolerable levels, however, if a few strategies are followed. Strive to keep fall vegetables healthy and actively growing; healthy plants are less susceptible to insects and diseases. Check the plants frequently for insect and disease damage. When sufficient damage is detected, use an approved pesticide. You may decide not to grow vegetables, such as squash, corn, and cucumbers, that are specially insect and disease prone during late summer and fall.

Frost Protection

You can extend the season of tender vegetables by protecting them through the first early frost. In North Carolina, we often enjoy several weeks of good growing conditions after the first frost. Cover growing beds or rows with burlap or a floating row cover supported by stakes or wire to keep the material from directly touching the plants. Individual plants can be protected by using milk jugs, paper caps, or water-holding walls.

Most of the semi-hardy and hardy vegetables will require little or no frost protection. Semi-hardy vegetables should be harvested before a heavy freeze. Root crops such as carrots and radishes should be harvested or mulched heavily before a hard freeze. The harvest of mulched root crops can often be extended will into the winter. During mild winters, harvest may continue till spring.

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A couple of extra tips:

According to the N.C. Landscape and Nursery Association fall is the best season for landscaping and tree/shrubs planting. Remember to water new plantings throughout the fall and during the dry periods of winter.

Construct a compost bin and begin preparations to manage fallen leaves. Homemade leaf compost is like "black gold" for enriching garden soil, and mulching flower beds with compost helps conserve moisture.

Some Options:



This leaf lettuce has a peppery flavor and is a great addition to salads and sandwiches. It can also be used as a tasty garnish for all kinds of food, hot or cold. Other greens like Swiss chard also do well in fall gardens.


Spinach is one of the hardiest fall vegetables, and can grow into the early winter. When freezing weather arrives, stop picking leaves and protect with a plastic tunnel unless it will have a blanket of snow for most of the season. It will often survive the winter and begin producing new leaves first thing in the spring.

Mustard greens

Considered a health "super food," mustard greens are loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and iron. They have a mild mustard flavor and are a great addition to salads. Mustard greens are also used in many recipes.


Turnips are delicious right out of the garden, cut into slices. They can also be cut into chunks and added to pot roast or a pan of roasted vegetables.


Radishes come in many colors, sizes, and shapes, but they're all fun to grow and well suited to fall gardens, since they're often ready to harvest in less than a month. These spicy veggies are also good candidates for container gardening.


Broccoli is packed with nutrients and easy to grow. Its frost tolerance makes it perfect for fall gardens. After harvesting the broccoli itself, leave the leaves on the plant. This often results in sideshoots, which provide a second or third crop.


Carrots are perfect for fall gardens because they get sweeter as the temperature cools. Pile mulch over them to prevent freezing, and you can harvest them into early winter.


How to Grow Cauliflower in Containers

Like carrots, cauliflower also gets sweeter as the temperatures drop. Look for a new variety of purple cauliflower, which doesn't require blanching like most white varieties. Harvest the bunches of cauliflower before the buds start to open.

And so much more...have fun with it!

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