Extending the Growing Season in Your Garden This Fall

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Last month, I talked about the benefits of planting perennial plants in the fall. The fall season is a great time for growing annual vegetables as well, especially here in Rutherford County where our fall tends to be mild. This also means that season extension, which I’ll talk a bit more about here, is possible even beyond our first frost date with a few easy techniques to keep your plants safe from frost.

Some of the most nutritiously dense vegetable crops grow well in the fall, including broccoli, collards, spinach, and kale. Root crops like turnips and carrots can be grown in the fall as well. Our fall season crops are generally the same crops that can be grown in the spring. For a list of fall annual vegetable crops and when to plant them in WNC, check out the Extension WNC planting calendar on our website.

So how do you prolong the growing and harvest season of your fall crops beyond the first frost date? Through season extension, which is the practice of protecting your annual vegetable plants in a way that extends their growing season. This can be done in the late winter/early spring to allow for earlier planting as well as in the mid-to-late fall as winter is approaching (and into the winter). Row covers are a relatively inexpensive way to provide insulation for crops that are planted outdoors. They come in multiple thickness options, and for winter crop temperature protection, the medium to heavier thickness options are best.

row cover example in a field

row covers in spring field

Cold frames can be affordable ways to construct a space that holds heat and allows for longer growing seasons for home gardeners as well. Some home growers even construct their own high tunnels, similar to what commercial vegetable producers use.

high tunnel example.

High tunnel in WNC

There are cultural practices that can be used to provide additional protection for your crops, such as mulching with materials around the plants such as straws, mulch, or cardboard and compost to provide additional root protection and to maintain moisture. This also provides a weed barrier to prevent the germination of competing weeds. Irrigating crops and their root zones is another helpful practice for especially cold nights. The more moisture you have on the soil/mulch layer, the more energy it takes for it to freeze, and the more likely your plants are to be protected from frost burn, especially if they’re under a row cover or other structure that is keeping them insulated. Some crops that are considered to be hardy can handle mild frosts, and can even have a positive impact on their flavors, such as with greens like kale, collards, and spinach. The times to add your row covers and moisten your mulch layers are when temperatures are likely to dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the night. When you choose plant varieties, you can look at the description and see if it mentions hardiness or anything about the plant doing well in colder temperatures.

Curious about growing some vegetable greens this fall/winter? Check out our plant sale offerings at the Extension Office’s website Rutherford.ces.ncsu.edu, call us at 828-287-6010, or come visit us at our office in Spindale. We’re excited to be partnering with the ICC Agriculture program, and they’re growing vegetable starts for the sale in their greenhouses. Orders are due by September 3rd, and we have blueberries and fall-planting strawberry varieties as well as fall vegetable starts.