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After Dark

Plant in late summer for a fall harvest

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By Barb Larson

Regardless of the successes or frustrations with your garden, late summer is the ideal time to plant a fall vegetable garden.

The fall vegetable garden is composed of cool season vegetables that are frost and freeze tolerant. Cool season vegetables are most often planted in early spring but there are several advantages to growing a fall crop. Broccoli, cauliflower, beets, chard, radish, lettuce, kale and others are sweeter in flavor and better quality when they mature in the cooler temperatures of fall instead of summer’s heat. Bolting (producing flower stalks) of lettuce, radish, and spinach, which is triggered by hot weather and long day length, isn’t an issue in the cooler, shorter days of autumn. In some crops insect pests and diseases may be less of a problem.

Vegetables for the fall garden are planted in mid to late summer. Planting date is based on days to harvest and average first fall killing frost. The first killing frost in southeast Wisconsin is as early as Oct. 4 in northern Walworth and western Racine Counties and as late as Oct. 24 near Lake Michigan in Racine County. Determine planting date by starting at the frost date and counting backwards the number of days to harvest for the cultivars you plan to grow. Leafy greens and similar fast growing and cold tolerant crops can be planted as late as the end of August. Some crops, like leaf lettuce, can be harvested before full maturity by cutting off side leaves as they grow. Similarly, beet and turnip tops can be selectively harvested before the roots are ready.

Vegetable seeds may be difficult to find at local garden and home centers in midsummer but you should be able to order seeds from large seed companies by Internet or mail. Leftover seed from spring planting may be used if the seed was stored in a cool, dry place.

Clean up the planting bed before seeding. Remove leftover plants and plant debris. Pull weeds in and around the seeding area. Work up the soil and add compost. If the bed was fertilized earlier in the year, further fertilization may not be needed. Two- to three-week-old seedlings can be sidedressed with fertilizer if they are slow growing. Root crops don’t need additional fertilizer and may produce more top leaf growth than root growth when nitrogen levels are high.

Most fall vegetables can be grown from seed. Plant seeds for fall crops slightly deeper — where the soil is cooler and moister — than recommended. Seedlings may have difficulty breaking though a hard soil crust so spread a thin layer of compost or light mulch over the seed bed to prevent crust formation. Keeping the soil moist will also prevent crusting.

Shade young seedlings with floating row cover or prop an old window screen above the bed. Large nearby plants, like tomatoes, can be another source of shade for new plants.

Regular watering is essential in getting your fall vegetables off to a good start. Seedlings dry out quickly when exposed to hot, dry conditions. A drip soaker hose is an easy way to keep the soil evenly moist and give new plants a steady supply of water.

Beets, carrots, cauliflower, chard, lettuce and mesclun will survive light frost without protection. Floating row cover, low hoops, or similar frost protection can extend the length of harvest. Freeze-tolerant crops, such as broccoli, spinach, turnip and kale, can often be harvested well into November. A layer of mulch will prevent the soil from freezing so root crops (e.g. carrots, beets, turnips) can be dug into early winter.

Barb Larson

is the horticulture educator for the Kenosha County UW-Extension. Call her at 262-857-1942 or email In Racine County, contact Patti Nagai, 886-8451 or email In Walworth County, contact Christine Wen at 262-741-4958 or email

Semi-hardy Vegetables

(Tolerate light frost, survive temperature in low 30s)

Asian Greens (pak choi, Chinese cabbage, etc.)








Mesclun blends



Hardy Vegetables

(Tolerate hard frost, survive temperatures in high 20s)


Brussels Sprouts


Collard Greens



Mustard Greens