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Thinking of Starting a Fall Vegetable Garden? Now’s the time to start!

A common misconception is that fall crops are sown in the fall but if you wait until September to sow that final crop of lettuce or peas, they will have barely emerged from the soil when cooler and shorter days slow their growth to a crawl. The result?  Little to no harvest.

Fall crops are harvested in the fall, not sown in the fall – which means that you need to get those crops sown during the summer so that they have time to mature by your expected first frost date. When it comes to fall crops, days-to-harvest is one of the most important bits of detail on the seed packet.

When it comes to growing vegetable to harvest in the fall, the goal is to have a full sized crop, or nearly so, by the first frost date. It’s not as simple as subtracting the days-to-harvest from your first frost date, however. Since weather in the fall gets progressively cooler with fewer daylight hours, crops take longer to mature when compared to a spring planting. So in order to give them sufficient time, you need to add at least 1-2 weeks to the total days on the seed packet.

Working backwards from your first frost date, it’s often surprising how early you have to sow in order to harvest in the fall. Oregon Sugar Pod Snow Peas, for example, take 56 days to mature. Adding 2 weeks results in an expected days-to-harvest of 70 days – working backwards from my first frost date on Oct. 3rd, I would have to sow the peas by July 25.

Many crops are great candidates for a fall crop, namely those that appreciate cooler temperatures and are also relatively quick to mature.

Carrots

Carrots are one of my go-to fall crops. Why?  Because carrots that have grown in the cooler days of fall and have been hit by a bit of frost are much sweeter than those that mature during the summer. In fact, I sow the bulk of my carrots during the summer for fall harvest. When calculating days to maturity for carrots, I still work backwards from my first frost date in early October, even though I don’t plan on harvesting them until several weeks after that. Those last few weeks in the ground don’t contribute very much to growth, but they sweeten them up nicely.

Radishes

Anyone that has tried growing radishes during the summer knows it’s a fruitless exercise. Radishes prefer it cool and quickly turn woody/overly spicy when it gets too hot. With their need for cooler temperatures and super quick maturity – many of them bulb up in less than 30 days - radishes are the perfect fall crop. Since they are so quick, I usually give them only 1 week of extra time when calculating when to sow.

Turnips

Some quick maturing varieties of salad turnips (also known as Hakurei turnips) bulb up in as little as 30 days while storage types (purple-top) take about 2 months. Both varieties appreciate the cooler weather of fall and, just like carrots, will get sweeter after a few light frosts.

Beets

Another bulb that appreciates cooler weather and matures quickly. Depending on the variety you can be harvesting baby beets (and greens) in as little as 40 days.

Chioggia Beets copy

Peas

One of the most highly anticipated spring crops also makes a great fall crop. I usually stick with snow peas in the fall as they can be picked while still quite young, giving me a larger window of opportunity for harvesting.

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi appreciates the cooler weather of fall & doesn’t mind a few frosts. Pay close attention to the days-to-harvest as it can vary from 40 all the way up to 80 days for some of the larger varieties.

Kale

Kale is a great fall crop. Not only can it be harvested at all stages of growth, from baby to mature leaves, but it also sweetens up once touched by frost. I harvest it as a “cut and come again crop”, harvesting the larger outer leaves, leaving the small ones in the center to continue to grow. In my short season, I’ll plant once in the late spring and harvest from the same plants all summer long and into the fall. If I wanted some extra kale to beef up my freezer stores, I would sow another round in mid-summer for fall harvest.

Red & White Russian Kale

Leaf Lettuce

Leaf lettuce (as opposed to head lettuce) is another amazing cut-and-come again veg that prefers cooler weather. Unlike kale, however, no matter how much you baby it, it will not withstand the heat of summer and I have to reseed several times for a continuous supply.  An early August sowing will give me full sized plants by the end of September which I will pick leaves from until November and even into December in some years. No kidding!  What’s the secret to harvesting lettuce in the cooler, sometimes freezing temperatures of late fall?  Don’t harvest when the leaves are frozen. Wait until they defrost during the warmer daytime temperatures and you too could be harvesting lettuce well into December.

Bush Beans

Unlike climbing beans, bush beans are quicker to mature, giving you an abundant crop in as little as 50 days. There’s no trellis to worry about either. Beans like it warm and don’t do well with frosts so it’s a good idea to give them some extra time. I would give them an extra 3 weeks or even more from the days listed on the packet.

Contender Beans copy

Swiss Chard

As with most leafy veg, Swiss chard can be harvested at any stage, from baby leaf to fully mature. As an added bonus, my fall chard doesn’t suffer from leaf miners like my summer chard often does.

Spinach

Although I’ve never had good luck with spinach, I’m throwing that out there as a possibility when it comes to a quick fall crop, especially as, like chard and lettuce, it can be harvested at all stages of growth from baby leaf to fully grown. Spinach can be a fussy, however, and may not germinate well if temperatures are too hot.

Herbs

Concentrate on easy annual herbs such as dill, basil and cilantro - not only are they quick growers, but they can also be harvested at any stage of growth. Even better, sow some in a pot or window box that can be brought inside if frosty temperatures threaten – this could easily extend your harvest well into late fall/early winter.

Fall crops are a great way of maximizing the use of space in your vegetable garden.  Just like so much else in life, however, timing is everything.  So get out those seeds now and get sowing - you’ll be glad you did come October as you harvest some garden fresh goodness.

Tips on How to Use Seed Tape

I recently wrote a step-by-step guide on How to Make Seed Tape – a task that can be done in the depths of winter, saving you much needed time when the gardening season really takes off and you have a mountain of chores to do.

When you are ready to sow, it’s a simple process – in a nutshell, you lay down your seed tape using the proper row spacing, cover with soil and then water. Over the years, however, I’ve found that a few simple tips and tricks can go a long way in ensuring that your seed tape adventure is a success.

DIY Seed Tape copy 

Choose a Relatively Windless Day

It goes without saying that you should not be out there sowing seed tape when it’s raining, but wind is another consideration. On a windy day, keeping the tape from shifting or flying away as you are laying it on the bed can become incredibly frustrating unless you are in a sheltered spot.  And since the point of using seed tape is to make sowing quicker & easier, chasing airborne strips of toilet paper sort of defeats the purpose – the neighbours may be amused, but you probably won’t be ;)

Water the Bed Ahead of Time

Prolonged watering after you sow can end up damaging the seed tape or displacing the soil covering the seeds so, unless the bed has already been moistened by Mother Nature, it’s a good idea to give it a good watering before you sow. I prefer to water several hours ahead of time as this will ensure that the bed is moist, but not sopping wet. Once the seed tape is sown, a light misting is usually enough to settle the top layer of soil.

Separate the Varieties

If you are sowing different varieties, consider placing the tape for each variety into a separate container, which will make it easier to keep track of. I find that 500 ml (2 cup) containers with lids work well for this as they are roomy enough that you can remove one strip of seed tape at a time without it getting tangled with the others and potentially tearing. While I’m at it, I’ll create the variety label and tuck that into the container as well – this way I won’t forget to mark the row.

Seed Tape in Container copy

Prepare the Topping Soil, if needed

If the seeds need to be sown ¼” deep or more, I’ll simply make a trench the appropriate depth, lay down the seed tape, then fill in with soil. If the seed only needs a light covering of soil, such as with carrots, I’ll place seed tape directly on the soil surface and then sprinkle soil over top. The soil in my garden is fairly dense and heavy so I prepare a lighter mixture by combining equal parts seed starting mix and garden soil. The seed starting mix on its own dries out too quickly, but together with the garden soil, it’s the perfect blend – lightweight with just enough bulk to retain moisture more effectively. If your soil is sandy, I would go the other way and add potting soil or compost to increase water retention.

Position the Seed Tape

Position the seed tape in the bed, with seeds facing up, using the desired spacing between rows. If using seed mats, the row spacing is already done so all you need to worry about is the spacing between the mats.

Label, Label, Label

Before you cover up that tape, make sure to label your rows or squares. You may think you’ll remember where you sowed everything, but believe me, you won’t. In a few days you’ll be standing there wondering whether those bits of green coming up are the radishes or the turnips. Yes, I’ve been there…more than once.

Label Seeds and Cover copy

Water the Bed

After covering the seed tape with soil, use a gentle or mist spray setting when watering the bed to avoid damaging or displacing the seed tape. This is where watering the bed ahead of time pays off – it should only take a minute or two to moisten & settle the soil topping the seeds.

And Keep Watering

Water the bed at least twice per day to keep that top layer of soil from drying out. The hotter it is, the more often you’ll have to water.

Keep up the daily watering until most of the seeds have germinated. At this point, the roots will be working their way down into the soil, so keeping the soil surface moist is not as much of a concern & you should cut back to a regular watering schedule (watering less often, but deeply).

That's all there is to it.  These simple tips should put you well on the road to a fun and fruitful (or vegful??) seed tape adventure.

How to Make Seed Tape – Step-by-Step

I first learned how to make seed tape several years ago when I was looking for a better way to sow carrot seed. Sprinkling those seeds onto the soil evenly was practically impossible. More often than not, I would end up with dozens of seedlings coming up in one spot, followed by several inches of bare soil. And all that thinning – definitely not one of my favourite tasks!

Then I heard about seed tape – just lay it on the bed, cover it up with soil and water. No fussing with tiny seeds, no wondering if you’ve sown too many seeds or not enough, and minimal thinning.

If you have hung around a seed stand for any length of time, you have likely seen ready-to-use seed tape. Why make your own seed tape, you may ask?  One word:  Variety. The pre-made options are limited while DIY seed tape gives you the flexibility of growing any variety you choose (think dozens of options vs. one or two).

Let’s get started…

Step 1 - Gather your supplies

You will need seeds (of course!), waxed paper, toilet paper (aka TP - organic is now widely available), a ruler, a non-toxic marker, a pen and non-toxic children’s glue. If you prefer not to use glue, you can also create your own by mixing flour with a bit of water, although I have personally found this mixture a bit frustrating to use. You will also need some clothespins and some string or a laundry rack when you set up your drying spot (Step 2).

DIY Seed Tape - Step 1 copy 

Step 2 - Set Up a Drying Spot

When you prepare each section of seed tape, you will have a length of TP with dots of glue topped with seeds. You can’t just leave the strips on the table to dry as the glue does go through the TP & will stick to whatever surface you are working on, so the seed tape needs to be hung up. The glue only takes a few hours to dry so anywhere that you can attach it using clothespins will work, from an indoor laundry rack to a string tied between kitchen cabinet handles. The one thing I wouldn’t recommend is hanging them outside as you don’t want critters or the wind to damage them.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 2 copy

Now that your supplies are gathered and a drying area is set up, you are ready to make seed tape.

Step 3 – Divide the TP into Shorter Lengths

Cut up a few lengths of TP to whatever length is most convenient for you. I find it easier to handle short strips of seed tape, both when making it and in the garden, rather than longer sections that can get stuck together or rip. I generally use 2-3’ lengths but you can, of course, use any length that you want, so long as it fits on your table.

Step 4 – Prepare the Waxed Paper

Cut a piece of waxed paper that is slightly longer than your TP strips. I didn’t do this on my first attempt at making seed tape and the TP ended up sticking to the table & ripping, even though the glue was still wet.  Waxed papers slick surface releases the glue-dotted TP much more easily and it also protects your work surface from marker stains, which WILL go through the TP (I learned that on my first try too – good thing they were washable markers!).

DIY Seed Tape - Step 3 copy 

Step 5 - Mark Out Your Spacing

Place one length of TP on the waxed paper and mark your desired spacing with the marker. If you have fresh seed, you should be fine going right to the recommended final spacing. For example, if the packet of seed indicates that radishes should be thinned to 2” apart, mark the TP every 2”. If your seed is a little older, you may want to do half spacing and then thin once germination occurs. In the radish example, you would mark the TP every inch, then remove every other seedling once they germinate, resulting in a final spacing of 2”.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 5 copy

Since TP is a 4.5” wide, you can create multiple rows on each length which will then be cut into individual strips. Once you mark the 1st row, simply copy the seed spacing in the other rows. Leave enough room between rows so that the strips are wide enough to be easily handled without tearing after they are cut (4-5 rows of max).

You don’t have to worry about spacing in between the rows as that will be done in the bed itself (i.e. if you need 4” spacing between rows, you simply space the individual strips 4” apart). If you prefer to do the row spacing ahead of time as well, you can create seed mats instead of seed tape (see “Seed Mats” below).

Step 6 – Identify Different Varieties

If you are growing different varieties, figure out how many TP rows of each you want, then mark both the beginning and end of the row with the name or initials. Or don’t and be surprised by what comes up!  I use a pen to note the variety as markers tend to bleed.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 6 copy 

Step 7 - A Dab of Glue & A Seed

Starting with the top row, place just a dab of glue on each mark. Use no more than a literal “dab” of glue as this is more than sufficient for the seed to stick and you want it to dry relatively quickly. When you reach the end of the first row, go back and plop one seed onto each dab of glue. There’s no need to push the seed down; it will stick to the glue on its own.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 7 copy 

Do one row at a time so that the glue doesn’t start to dry on you before adding the seed. Also, start with the top row and work your way down, which minimizes the chance of accidentally disturbing a row that’s already been done.

Step 8 – Drying

After you complete one length of TP, gently remove it from the waxed paper. Do this slowly, so as not to tear the sheet or disturb the seeds. Hang the seeded TP in the drying area, making sure that you leave a bit of space between each length so that they don’t touch.

Hang Seed Tape to Dry

 

Step 9 – Storing & Cutting into Strips

Once the glue is completely dry – I usually wait at least 4-5 hours or even overnight just to make sure – you can fold up & store the seed tape in a zip lock bag until you are ready to use it, be that the next day or two months from now.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 9a copy 

When you are ready to sow, simply cut the seed tape into individual strips and away you go.

DIY Seed Tape - Step 9b copy 

You can, of course, cut the tape into strips before you store it but I find the thin strips rather fragile and easily torn, so I prefer to leave the TP lengths intact until it’s time to sow.

Seed Mats

One alternative to seed strips is a seed mat where you not only space the seeds within each row, but you also use the correct spacing between each row. Then, instead of cutting the sheets into strips, you would use the entire mat as is.

When creating seed mats, I use paper napkins instead of toilet paper. If the napkins are the thick, multi-layered type, I separate them into individual layers. Paper napkins are also a great way to sow using the Square Foot Method as you can create a seed mat for each “square”.  Technically, the square foot method sows seeds in a grid pattern, but I prefer to stagger the rows within each square, which is what I’ve done for the French Breakfast radish seed mat below.

Seed Mat copy 

One of the great things about making your own seed tape/mat is that most of the work is done ahead of time. In fact, I often make seed tape during the winter - it’s a bit of garden therapy when there’s a foot of snow outside. Then, once the season gets going and there are more tasks to complete than there are hours in the day, sowing is that much easier and quicker.

Related Post: Tips on How to Use Seed Tape

Growing from Seed: What the Packets Don't Tell You

When I first started growing from seed I relied heavily on the advice given by seed packets. Some packets are better than others, but the vast majority give you only the most basic information, namely when and how deeply/far apart to sow.

Sometimes, it really is that easy – plop the seed into a pot of soil or into the ground, give it a good watering and wait for the magic to begin. Other times, however, things may not go according to plan – the seeds don’t germinate at all or they do, but then keel over and wither away for no apparent reason.

I’ve had my fair share of seedy misadventures over the years and have learned (often the hard way) that a few simple steps can make all the difference when it comes to seed starting success.

1. Start with squeaky clean equipment. I’m talking pots, trays, tools and even the plant tags that you use to identify what’s in that cell pack.This is the most important step that you can take to help prevent disease, especially damping off which is one scourge that can take you from seedling bliss to seedling despair in the blink of an eye. I usually do a mass cleaning of all my pots, cell packs, trays and tools at the end of the growing season so that they are ready to go come early spring.

Fall Pot Cleanup

2. Moisten the soil. Most bags of seed-starting mix are pre-moistened but if it’s been sitting around for a while chances are that it’s on the dry side.If you think you’ll just water after you sow those seeds, think again – most seed starting mixes are heavy on peat which is almost impossible to moisten by simply pouring water on top of it – all that water will simply run down the inside of the pot and end up in the saucer. In order to thoroughly moisten the soil mix, I pour it into a plastic tub, add some water (not too much), then stir and stir – a long handled stirring spoon or your hands work equally well.I repeat, adding a bit more water each time, until the mixture is just damp, but not soaking wet. To test if it’s moist enough, grab a handful and squeeze – it should hold together. Now poke it with your finger – if it falls apart easily, you are good to go. If it stays in a lump, then you added too much water - simply mix in a bit more soil to help soak up the excess.If you are using a terra cotta pot, give it a good soak (about 10 minutes or so) before filling with soil so that the porous clay doesn’t wick up the moisture in your soil. Lastly, it’s equally important to moisten the soil ahead of time if you are sowing directly into a garden bed, unless Mother Nature has done it for you.

Moistening the Seeding Mix

3. Air circulation is important. Keeping the air moving around the seedlings not only toughens up those stems, making them sturdier & better able to cope with the elements once they are transplanted outside, but also helps minimize fungal diseases such as damping off. I keep a small fan running on low speed & position it a few feet away from the seedlings themselves – you want the air flow to resemble a gentle breeze not a hurricane.

4. Know the optimal temperature for germination. While placing a seed flat on that toasty area on top of the refrigerator may be a good idea for a heat lover such as tomatoes, lettuce may find that same spot a bit too warm and germination would suffer. Those same lettuce seeds, however, would do just fine in my 66°F (19°C) basement but I would likely get slow, sparse germination from my eggplants. The bottom line?You don’t need to be too hung up on precise temperatures but knowing whether your particular seeds prefer it warmer or cooler can help you choose a spot that will encourage better and faster germination.

5. Some seeds need special treatment in order for dormancy to be broken and germination to occur – this process is called stratification. When I first grew Echinacea from seed, the packet simply stated to sow 6-8 weeks before my last frost date. Sounds simple enough...a bit too simple, as it turns out, since only 1 out of 8 seeds germinated.Some research revealed that Echinacea seed needs to be exposed to 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures in order to germinate. I sowed the remaining seeds in a pot, covered it with a plastic bag and placed it in the refrigerator for 6 weeks. Then I took it out and left it at room temperature. Lo and behold, every single seed germinated. I could also have replicated nature by sowing those seeds directly into the ground in the fall, but I prefer to raise most seedlings in a more controlled environment, transplanting them outdoors once they are better able to fend for themselves.

Echinacea seedlings

Of course, you can do everything right and still have poor germination or growth – that happens to everyone, no matter how seasoned a gardener you are. Sometimes it’s our own fault – letting the cell packs dry out a bit too much, for example - while other times it’s not (I’ve received a bad batch of seed on more than one occasion).

Don’t let a bad experience or two discourage you from trying again. When it comes to growing plants from seed, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to maximize the chance of success, not eliminate the possibility of failure. So grab those seeds, scrub those pots and get sowing – nothing is quite so exciting as watching that first bit of green popping up from the soil while winter winds blow outside.