Have you ever wanted to grow a fall garden, but thought it was impossible because you live in an area with a growing season of 90-100 days and often get early frosts in September? I garden in zone 3b in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the heart of the Canadian Prairies and I’m here to tell you that it’s not an impossible dream–although it does have some limitations. In this post, I’m going to show you how I do it and some of my thought process behind it.
Disclaimer time. I am NOT an expert at fall gardening. I’m still in the beginning stages of experimenting with different plants, timings, and season extenders. If you are reading this and are further along in the journey than I am, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments. I also plan to update this post each year as I learn more from my experiments. You can follow along in real time on Instagram or Facebook.
When Do You Start a Fall Garden?
I’m still working out the exact best timing for this, but I have started my fall garden this year in mid-July. All my seedlings are under a grow light, because I don’t have any growing space to direct seed. I will transfer the plants outdoors once my beans, broccoli, and lettuces are done producing.
In an ideal world, I would only direct seed as soon as those vegetables were finished. However, this year (2019) we had a very late start to Spring, and everything is at least 2 weeks behind. In a growing season of only 100 or so days, one doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait if the season is late.
In 2017, the season was typical, and I planted kale and lettuce as soon as I pulled out my beans. It worked and those vegetables grew, but they were not the size that I hoped they would be by the time it got cool and they stopped growing.
P.S. Wondering about 2018? I wasn’t able to experiment as I had a difficult pregnancy and had to give up my garden because I was on bed rest. You can read about the mistakes I learned with container gardening here.
What Can You Plant in a Fall Garden?
In short, you want to plant vegetables that get to maturity in around 50 days or less, and are cool weather loving plants. Here’s a list of what I’m experimenting with this year.
- Pak Choi
- Bok Choi
Beans typically do not like cold weather, but I found a variety that produces in 40 days, so it should work in theory. I would have liked to try broccoli, but I couldn’t find a variety with a short enough maturity date that was available in stores when I needed it.
I’ll be planting Garlic a bit later to harvest next summer.
What Do You Do When it Freezes?
Where I live in zone 3, it’s important to start watching the weather forecast starting the last week of August, and check it every single day. Whenever there is a risk of frost overnight, I cover my vegetables with old sheets.
You don’t have to worry about them getting crushed, and the sheets should be sufficient until the first hard frost, or when the temperature dips to around -5 Celsius. Kale usually survives until frosts of around -8 to -10 in my experience, but everything else will die or require more intense protection.
This fall I’ll be experimenting with plastic and cloth covers, as well as cold frames. I’ll let you know what works and for how long.
How Long Can You Keep Your Late Season Garden Going?
How long your fall garden lasts will depend on the weather and what methods of protection you give it. In a warmer fall, you can expect your garden to last until late October or early November with minimal protection. However, some years we get a surprise night of -30 Celsius. In that case, I doubt even the most protected cold frame would be able to save your vegetables.
Fall gardens do not grow like summer gardens.
Once you pass the first frost of the season and then the Autumnal Equinox, everything will grow at a much slower rate, if at all. I like to think of Autumn gardening as preserving a set of vegetables outdoors for as long as possible.
This means that you need to grow vegetables that will get to their full size around the time of the first frost of the season.
Will you try growing a fall garden? Let me know in the comments, and please share your experiences!
Kristen is a former farm kid turned urban gardener who owns the popular gardening website, Shifting Roots. She is obsessed with growing flowers and pushing the limits of what can be grown in her zone 3b garden. She also loves to grow tomatoes, but oddly enough, dislikes eating them raw.