by Eliza Holcombe Lord, Master Gardener, Master Naturalist, Permaculturist

July 2016 Tip of the Month: When to Start Fall Seeds and Why You Should Give Cold Weather Gardening a Try!

It’s scorching hot outside, thunderstorms are frequent, and piles of fresh fruits & veggies are coming out of the garden. That means it’s almost time to start your fall seeds!

Ground cherries - a delicious summer fruit that grows best in the full heat of summer.

Ground cherries – a delicious summer fruit that grows best in the full heat of summer.

It might not feel or taste like it at the moment, but for most areas of the country, July through September are the months you’ll want to start your fall/winter seeds indoors to transplant out in your garden 6-8 weeks later.

Of course, you can always direct-sow your fall/winter seeds in your garden underneath your larger summer annuals if you’d prefer – that’s what we often do with kale, lettuce, and other salad greens. But we’ve found that we usually get much better growing results with fall crops such as Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and cabbage when we start them indoors. That’s because they get to enjoy six weeks growing in a temperature-controlled environment and have a big jump start on the fall growing season before we transplant them outdoors into our garden in late summer.

Why Should You Garden In the Fall or Winter?

Gardening isn’t just a warm weather activity. In fact, most gardeners we know who try cool weather gardening actually end up liking it better than summer gardening.

A gorgeous bok choy from last fall.

A gorgeous bok choy from last fall.

Why? There are far less weeds, pest insects, and soil pathogens & diseases during the cool months. Plus cooler soil temperatures means less water evaporation, so your irrigation needs are minimized.

Oh, and perhaps the most important reason of all: cool season crops are delicious!

When To Start Fall Seeds

When should you start your fall and winter seeds? That answer will depend on:

  1. What Agricultural Zone you live in, and
  2. The “days to maturity” of the particular seed variety you’re growing (this info should be on your seed packet).

Once you have this info, simply count back from your first frost date based on your “days to maturity” to determine when you should start your seeds. (And if that’s too complicated, scroll down the page to our downloadable fall seed starting calculator, which makes it super easy to figure out when to start any of your fall seeds.)

Many cool weather crops can easily survive uncovered in sub-freezing temperatures.

Many cool weather crops can easily survive uncovered in sub-freezing temperatures.

For example, if a particular cabbage variety takes “90 days to maturity” and your first frost date is Oct 30, then you’ll want to start those seeds around August 1 (about 90 days before your first frost date). 

There are also plenty of fall/winter veggies that will continue growing even in sub-freezing temperatures with no protection. You can be more aggressive about starting those seeds closer to your first frost date if you’d like. (Look for “cold hardy” varieties, or if you’re a GrowJourney member, simply look at the Growing Notes icons on your seed packets or in your My Seeds area to find out the frost and freeze tolerance of a particular variety.)

GrowJourney seed packets contain icons designed to make it easy to instantly tell the relative hardiness of the seeds inside.

GrowJourney seed packets contain icons designed to make it easy to instantly tell the relative hardiness of the seeds inside.

 

In fact, a frost or a freeze will sweeten the flavor of cold hardy veggies when the plants’ sugars become more concentrated as a natural antifreeze against the cold.

Beet roots taste amazing after a fall frost.

Beet roots taste amazing after a fall frost.

Downloadable Fall Seed Starting Calculator

To make it easier for you to figure out when to start fall seeds, we’ve created a fall seed-starting “calculator” that you can use to figure out when to direct sow your fall seeds or transplant your fall seedlings into your garden (if you started them indoors).

Click here to view and download the calculator as an Excel or Google Doc spreadsheet. (Note:.xlsx is recommended if you’re using MS. Excel & .csv is recommended for Open Office.)

Get Growing!

Keep enjoying your sumptuous summer produce, but don’t forget to think and plan ahead for all the healthy, delicious produce you can grow in your fall and winter garden!

Click here to read more about starting and growing a cold weather garden.

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