Garden people divide vegetables into two categories, warm season crops that need hot sun to mature, and cool season veggies that prefer brisker weather. These cool-weather tough guys tolerate light frost and some even shake off temperature drops to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just remember to offer fall garden plants a sunny location, soil with ample organic content and regular irrigation and you’ll be eating home-grown through the holidays and beyond.
To a gardener’s eye, nothing is more beautiful than the bright, crisp leaves of garden lettuce (Lactuca sativa), from relaxed, loose-leaf varieties to stiff, stand-up Romaine. Lettuce won’t grow sweet and tender in the scorching summer sun, so put those seeds or seedlings in the ground about the time the kids go back to school. This is an easy-sneezy fall crop; you basically plant it, water it to keep the soil constantly moist to 6 inches, and harvest a few months later. Plant seeds two-week intervals to keep the lettuce coming.
Former President Bush famously dissed broccoli (Brassica oleracea italica) by saying he’d hated it all his life, but this super-veggie may have the larger fan club. A great source of vitamins C and D as well as nutrients that fight inflammation and cancer, broccoli is also just plain yummy if it isn’t cooked into mush. Broccoli must come to harvest in temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so post-summer planting is ideal. Count at least 70 days from seed to harvest, or cut that time by using transplants. Broccoli’s a survivor so don’t fret over a little frost.
If frost comes early where you live, think kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephal) for fall planting since you can harvest this fast-growing vegetable a mere 30 days after planting. Mature kale looks like cabbage that had a few drinks, with relaxed, loose leaves perfect for raw salads or steaming. In many zones, kale is a cash-cow crop since you can harvest outer leaves all winter long. These antioxidant-rich vegetables keep their cool down to 20 degrees. The health benefits of kale would fill a book, but the ornamental varieties also provide eye candy with their gorgeous magenta leaves.
Americans call leeks elegant onions, while the French label their beloved “poirots” poor man’s asparagus. Vegetable hierarchy aside, luscious leeks (Allium porrum) belong to the onion family and are cold-hardy crops just made for fall planting. To increase the sweet, white section of the stem, hill soil around the stalks as they develop. The veggies will be ready for that soupe–de poireaux recipe (or just plain steaming) in about 80 to 100 days. It’s no problem if your leek-bin runneth over; you can store them in a cool, moist location for two or three months.
Having a good wife and rich cabbage soup, seek not other things,” advises a Russian proverb; you can get a head start on this simple bliss by including cabbage in your fall garden. Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is sweetest if it matures in cool weather, and early fall planting yields a harvest two to six months later, depending on cultivar, climate and whether you use transplants or seeds. Just because the cabbages at your grocery store are uniformly round and green doesn’t mean that’s your only choice: cultivars also offer flat, or pointed heads and crinkled leaves in hues of red and purple.
Home-grown beets (Beta vulgaris) offer double happiness. The rich, rounded root can fly solo or liven up a salad, and the vitamin-packed greens are delicious steamed or roasted. Don’t feel stuck with the deep-purple varieties; you’ll find cultivars with pink, red, yellow, orange and even cany-striped beetroots. Fall is an optimal time for planting beets, since they need temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit to mature. Harvest time is flexible; the greens are most tender about 6 inches tall, and the beetroots sweetest when 2 inches in diameter.
Be warned: once you taste the deep, subtle flavors of garden garlic, you won’t tolerate generic bulbs from the grocery store. Planting your own garlic (Allium sativum var. sativum and ophiosco) requires only garlic cloves, and one pound of cloves yields some 10 pounds of crop. Don’t use bland commercial garlic as planting stock; instead select great garden garlic from your local suppliers and get those cloves in the soil (pointed end up!) and establishing roots before winter arrives. They’ll be ready for harvest the following summer.
A radish may be the smallest crucifer vegetable, but it makes each bite count, a little spicy kick with a great crunch. Salad radishes (Raphanus sativus), the small red-skinned kind that are eaten raw, belong in the fall garden in mild climates where they ripen in less than two months. For cooler regions, look to winter radishes (Raphanus sativus longipinnatus); their roots are longer and oblong and need a little more time in the ground.
Just because summer is over, doesn’t mean you can’t buy fresh produce. Here are fruits and vegetables that are at their peaks in fall.
Visit your local farmer’s market or take the family on an apple picking trip for the freshest apples. They’re perfect for snacking, baking, and even stopping headaches.
Oranges are commonly associated with summer, but from Florida to California, autumn is the best time to enjoy this citrus favorite. Use them to make healthy breakfast smoothies or eat them as a quick vitamin C-packed snack.
While you won’t find any grape ice cream this season (or any season), fall’s harvest brings in a bounty of fresh grapes in all varieties. Either as a snack or made into your favorite jam, now is the perfect time to bag a bunch.
Filled with antioxidants, stock up on this wonder fruit during the fall. Try juicing them to tap their full heart health benefits. (After all, that’s why they’re among the healthiest fruits you can eat.) The fruit and their seeds can also be thrown on top of salads as a colorful, edible garnish.
If you think all there is to Brussels sprouts is a reputation for tasting disgusting, prepare to have your mind blown: Brussels sprouts have more vitamin C than oranges. So don’t believe the cartoons that perpetuate this stereotype; enjoy these tasty green treats at their freshest. If you’re having trouble getting your family to eat them, try roasting them.
Fall is the perfect time to enjoy your favorite mushrooms, whether they’re white, cremini, or Portobello. (By the way, this is the difference between those ‘shrooms.) Your local market will have the best variety of mushrooms at this time. Take the opportunity to try something new.
Enjoy this delicious vegetable either raw or cooked. You can even mash it for an alternative to mashed potatoes or turn it into a delicious pizza crust. Try purple varieties for an added treat.
Take the opportunity to taste spinach at its very best. Since this leafy green is filled with iron, fiber, and nitrates that keep your arteries from getting clogged, you’ll be fueling your body with the perfect nutrients for the cold weather ahead.
From preventing cancer to keeping your brain sharp, there are plenty of reasons to eat more cranberries. Enjoy this tart, sweet berry from autumn to winter. Try making your own cranberry juice or impress your Thanksgiving guests with homemade cranberry sauce.
The humble spud is at its peak in fall—but that doesn’t mean your potato chip indulgences should increase too. If anything, make your own homemade chips, potato or otherwise. Talk to your grocer about new varieties, like purple potatoes, which are high in antioxidants.
Sweet potatoes and yams
Filled with vitamin A and fiber, sweet potatoes are as delicious as they are nutritious. The same goes for yams, which are actually different from sweet potatoes. Stock up and use them in your favorite recipes, as sides, even on salads.
Perfect for soups and salads, leeks are an excellent way to add mild onion flavor to your best autumn recipes. The best part about eating leeks? You can fight off cancer and season your food at the same time!
Pumpkins are almost synonymous with fall, and they’re good for more than just fun decorations for the season. They’re great sources of alpha- and beta-carotene, which promotes eye health.
Another festive fall food, summer squash are still available until October in some states. Then comes the winter squash, so seasonal transitions won’t squash your squash cravings. Just remember to never store your squash next to your apples.