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Fall Vegetable Gardening

Fall is the best season to grow vegetables in North Texas. Many people from other parts of the country are accustomed to growing vegetables in the spring, but in North Texas spring planting is often delayed by wet or cold weather and then plants are exposed to too-hot weather before they mature. In the fall, the weather is not as unpredictable and rainfall is more plentiful, but variety selection is important so that plants have time to mature and yield a bountiful harvest before cold weather arrives.

An important date to remember is that our average date of the first killing frost is November 20th; crops need to be planted early enough so that they will mature and produce well before this date.

It’s July and temperatures are consistently hovering around 100 degrees, and it doesn’t get below 80 degrees at night, so it may seem crazy, but it’s time to begin planting the fall garden. Trust me. The fact is that the fall vegetable garden is planted by the calendar, not the climate.

Because of the extreme heat, it important to closely monitor soil moisture levels and fertilize regularly so that plants grow quickly and get established. Here is the timetable I follow for fall planting:

July 1-15

Plant eggplant transplants. Scatter fertilizer around transplant after planting; fertilize again when first bloom appears.

Plant pepper transplants; choose plants that are 6-8” tall. Dig a 3” hole and fill it with water and let it sink in. After planting, create a mound of soil 3-4” out from the stem creating a well to keep water where it is needed. Fertilize (2 teaspoons per plant in a circle under the drip line) when fruits begin to develop, repeat every two weeks. Pick peppers as they mature to keep them producing.

Start broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kohlrabi seeds indoors.

Plant cantaloupe, pumpkin and watermelon seeds outdoors. Choose small- to mid-sized pumpkin varieties that will mature by mid-October. Be sure to give the vines lots of room to spread. Keep the plants moist and fertilize monthly to keep them growing vigorously. Protect fruit by placing a flower pot under ripening fruit to keep the fruit above the soil.

Purchase certified disease free potatoes and store under warm, damp conditions for two weeks. Note that seed is not always available in the fall; purchase seed in the spring and store in a cool, humid place (like the refrigerator crisper drawer) until needed.

July 15-25

Check around to see which nursery or feed store will have tomato transplants available. Choose small- and medium-sized fruiting varieties for best results. Buy transplants that have been hardened off, and be prepared to protect plants from the elements.

July 25-August 15

Direct seed winter squash. Sow 4 seeds evenly spaced per hill; when 2” tall thin to 36” apart. It is not unusual for squash to produce more male than female blossoms early in the season (the ratio is 4 male:1 female). Don’t despair, remove and stuff the blossoms with savory fillings until the females catch up. Be on the lookout for squash vine borer; the sudden wilting of squash vines is the first symptom. Surgery (slit the stem lengthwise until the borer is found and remove it) is the only solution. Cover the stem with soil just above the site of injury and new roots will grow.

Plant tomatillo and tomato transplants. Shade plants from afternoon sun for a few days, gradually exposing them to one more hour of sun a day. Keeping plants well-watered will be a challenge but be diligent because plants that suffer from fluctuations in soil moisture are susceptible to blossom-end rot. As insurance, insert a crushed calcium/Tums tablet in the planting hole. Add a handful of rock phosphate then plant the tomatoes deeper than they were grown in the container. Remove suckers weekly and fertilize bi-monthly to keep plants growing vigorously. As lower branches turn yellow, remove them to increase air circulation. When fruit appears, hang red, plastic ornaments on the cage to deter birds and squirrels.

July 25-August 25

Plant potatoes. Dig a trench 5” deep and lightly scatter a balanced fertilizer in the trench. Cover with 2” of soil and plant potatoes (for fall planting it’s best to use whole, uncut potatoes no larger than 2” in diameter). Cover the potatoes with 3” of soil and spread a generous layer of fertilizer over the top of the soil. When the plant reach 6-8” tall, fertilize again and add 2” of soil (tubers should not be exposed to sunlight). If garden space is limited grow your crop in black plastic trash bags or large plastic tree containers. It’s okay to pull some immature potatoes for immediate use, but if potatoes are to be stored, they have to be fully mature (wait until the tops of the plants have died down before harvesting).

August 1

Start artichoke seeds indoors. It may take 60 days for plants to be large enough to transplant into the garden.

August 1-September 1

Direct seed beans that have been soaked overnight; sow small amounts every week. Plant 3 seeds around a stake; when 3” tall, thin to one seedling. Train the beans to grow up the stake.

Direct seed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. Sow 3 seeds every 24”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling.

Direct seed rutabaga and kohlrabi seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 6”; when 4” tall, thin to one seedling.

Direct seed parsnip seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 3”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling.

Direct seed artichoke seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 3”; when 6” tall, thin to one seedling.

August 1-September 15

Direct seed sorrel seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 4”; when 3” tall, thin to 8” apart.

August 1-September 30

Direct seed greens (collards, kale mustard, turnip). Sow 3 seeds every 6” (18” for collards and kale); when 3” tall, thin to one seedling.

August 1-October 1

Direct seed parsley seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 8”; when 1” tall, thin to one seedling.

Direct seed spinach seeds. Sow 3 seeds every 6”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling. Spinach has a tap root, so work soil to a depth of 8-10” before planting. These plants are greedy feeders and need plenty of nitrogen to develop dark green leaves. Fertilizer should be worked into the soil before the seeds are planted and then again after the seedlings emerge. Plant a little seed every ten days.

August 15-September 15

Direct seed lettuce. Sow 3 seeds every 10”; when 1/2” tall, thin to one seedling. Plant a little seed every ten days. The secret to growing lettuce is to grow it fast with lots of water. After harvest, temper leaves in an ice bath and refrigerate.

Direct seed Swiss chard. Sow 2 seeds every 8”; when 1/2” tall, thin to one seedling.

August 15-October 15

Direct seed mache, mibuna, mizuna and tatsoi. Sow 3 seeds every 6” (1” for mache); when 1” tall, thin to one seedling.

August 20-30

Plant transplants of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, kale and kohlrabi.

Plant transplants of broccoli and cabbage, covering up to the first set of leaves. As the cabbage grows, if it starts to get lanky, hill soil up to the first set of leaves.

Plant transplants of kale. As you harvest the lower leaves, hill up the soil to the stem.

All cruciferous plants are susceptible to a serious pest the cabbage looper. While these pest are more active in the spring, they are present nearly the entire growing season. Be diligent scouting for pale yellow eggs on the undersides of leaves. Emerging larva feed for 3-4 days and can defoliate entire plantings. Symptoms are leaves riddled with small, irregular holes and greenish-brown piles of excrement at the base of leaves. If present, check the undersides of leaves where larvae feed. Check nearby lettuce, spinach, beets, parsley, potatoes and tomatoes as they also feed on these plants. Hand pick or spray with insecticidal soap.

Direct seed Florence fennel. Sow 3 seeds every 3”; when 1” tall, thin to one seedling.

August 25-October 15

Direct seed turnip (for bulbs). Sow 3 seeds every 6”; when 2” tall thin to one seedling.

Direct seed beets. Sow one seed every 6”; when 2” tall thin to one seedling (each seed contains multiple seeds, it is very important to thin). For a continuous harvest, sow small amounts every three weeks. When fruits are about 2-3” in diameter, pull every other plant and allow the others to grow to full size.

September 1-October 1

Direct seed carrot. Sow seed thinly and thin to 3” apart when 4” tall. Be patient, carrot seed is slow to germinate.

Direct seed leek. Sow 4 seeds every 4”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling. Pull soil away from bulb as it grows.

September 1-November 15

Direct seed radish; sow small amounts of individual seeds every ten days. Radish is a light feeder; too much fertilizer will produce lots of leaves but no fruit.

September 15-September 30

Direct seed onions seeds. Sow 2 seeds every 2-4”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling.

September 30-October 15

Direct seed peas that have been soaked overnight. Create a furrow 8” deep and lightly scatter a balanced fertilizer in the furrow. Cover with 2” of soil and plant the seeds 1-2” deep. As the peas vines grow, gradually fill the furrow. Peas are classified in several ways: as edible pods (harvest while pods are flat and eat the entire pod), Sugar Snap (harvest when peas have plumped and eat the entire pod), English peas (harvest when peas are plump and remove from the pods) and dried (harvest when pods are dry and store the peas). The tendrils are also delicious. Peas fix nitrogen from the air so no fertilization is necessary.

October 1

Plant artichoke transplants. Allow at least 2-3’ between plants and mulch well; if frost threatens protect plants with a thick layer of leaves. Plants will grow slowly through the winter, but will grow rapidly in early spring for harvest in April-May. After all artichokes have been harvested, cut stems to the ground, leaving only the most vigorous plants to produce the next years’ harvest.

October 1-November 1

Direct seed chervil. Sow 5 seeds every 8”; when 2” tall, thin to one seedling 12” apart.

Direct seed chives. Sow 10 seeds every 8”.

Direct seed dill. Sow 3 seeds every 4”; when 3” tall, thin to one seedling.

Plant garlic cloves for harvest in late spring. Soft-neck varieties produce bulbs with more but smaller cloves and are best for our climate. Do not separate individual cloves until just before planting. Dig a trench 5” deep and fill it with a 2-3” layer of compost. Set cloves on top of the compost pointed side up 2” deep and 4” apart and cover with compost; the compost will stimulate good root development before winter. Green shoots will appear, but snap off any flower seeds that develop. When temperatures dip into the 30’s, cover plants with a thick layer of leaves.

October 1-November 15

Direct seed arugula. Sow small amounts of individual seed every 10-14 days.

Direct seed bok choy. Sow 3 seeds every 6”; when 2” tall thin to one seedling.

October 23-November 6

Direct seed cilantro. Sow small amounts of individual seed every week.

January 1-31

Plant onion sets. Dig a trench 5-6” deep and add a layer of fertilizer, fill the trench with soil and rake smooth. Plant no deeper than 3/4”. Initially space 2” apart and thin every other plant to use as scallions. When bulbs begin to form, pull soil away so they can easily expand. By harvest, only half of the bulb should be in the ground.

Plant ‘Alaska’ peas. Create an 8” deep furrow and line with compost. Cover with 2” of soil and plant seeds 2” apart; cover with 1” of soil. As the peas grow, gradually fill the furrow.

Some of the date ranges are pretty broad. This is to take into consideration the ideal soil temperature for sowing, which will vary from year to year. Purchase an inexpensive soil thermometer and let that be your guide. Ranges for individual crops:

75-90 Squash and Swiss chard

75-85 Bok Choy, Cabbage, Collard Greens

70-90 Tomatillos and Tomatoes

70-85 Beans and Cauliflower

70-80 Artichoke

65-85 Kale

65-80 Kohlrabi

65-70 Potatoes

60-90 Florence fennel

60-85 Beets, Broccoli, Carrots, Leeks, Onions

60-80 Sorrel and Tatsoi

60-70 Arugula, Chervil, Chives, Dill, Garlic, Mustard Greens, Lettuce

55-70 Parsnips

55-68 Cilantro

50-85 Parsley

50-80 Peas

50-75 Spinach

50-70 Mache, Mibuna and Mizuna

40-80 Radish and Rutabaga

40-75 Turnips and Turnip Greens

Tips for a Successful Fall Garden:

Start seeds of different vegetables or varieties in separate containers to avoid problems with differences in seed germination times.

After planting seeds, keep the soil evenly moist until germination. After seedlings emerge, reduce the frequency of watering so that the plants gradually get tougher.

Pinch out the growing tips early and often for bushy plants with stock stems. Brushing seedlings regularly will also result in sturdier plants (some gardeners set up a fan).

Don’t skimp on hardening off seedlings; the process takes 7-10 days before plants can be moved to their permanent location in the garden. Sun and wind rather than temperature is the problem in the fall.

Some vegetables are best direct seeded in the ground where they will grow (arugula, beans, beets, carrots, chervil, dill, Florence fennel, greens, parsnips, peas, radish, rutabaga, sorrel, spinach and turnip).

Some vegetables are best started indoors and planted into the garden as transplants (artichoke, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, potatoes and tomatoes).

Some vegetables can be grown either way (chard, cilantro, kale, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce and tomatillos).

Keep sowing fast-maturing crops into vacant spaces after the addition of a shovel of compost.

Read the seed packet. It contains a wealth of information. Keep a separate calendar with germination dates and days to maturity.

Monitor pest populations with sticky traps. You can make your own from yellow card stock (cut to 3” x 5”) painted with a sticky substance (such as Tanglefoot). Mount on bamboo stakes with a clothespin that has been securely taped to the stake.

Plan on visiting the garden every day. A Chinese proverb claims that “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow”.

If the varieties you have chosen are “heirloom” or “open pollinated”, collect seed for next season. Allow fruit to dry completely on the plant before removing.

Save seeds from the best-looking, -tasting and vigorous tomato plants by removing pump and placing in a bowl of water; after 24 hours, viable seeds will settle to the bottom of the bowl. Rinse and dry thoroughly before storage.

Seeds are best stored in the refrigerator in well-marked glass jars with desiccant packs.

Extending the Season:

In most years your garden will produce until Thanksgiving. Most cold tolerant vegetables will grow well into winter if given some protection. I have driven stakes on either side of the raised bed (divided into thirds) onto which I have bent lightweight irrigation tubing to fashion a “hoop” that supports fiber row cover. A queen size fitted sheet will cover a 4’ x 8’ raised bed.

Tomato cages can be wrapped with bubble wrap or fiber row cover to extend the harvest, but once temperatures are consistently in the 40’s harvest green fruit as quality declines rapidly with exposure to cold temperatures.

Carrots, garlic, lettuce, onions, potatoes and radishes are surprisingly cold hardy. Cabbage and leeks tolerate temperatures in the 20’s but will need protection during extended cold spells. Beets can survive frost and almost freezing temperatures. Turnips and rutabagas can be left in the garden over the winter if covered with a thick mulch and harvested as needed.

Varieties Recommended by Master Gardeners (Collin and Dallas County):

Artichoke: Emerald, Purple Sicilian, Violetta

Arugula: Italian Rocket

Beans: Blue Lake 274, Contender, Festina, Nash

Beets: Boro, Detroit Supreme, Gourmet Blends, Touchstone Gold

Broccoli: Belstar

Brussels sprouts: Dimitri Hybrid, Franklin

Cabbage: Danish Ball, Ruby Ball

Carrots: Napa, Purple Dragon, Royal Chantenay, SugarSnax, Sweet Treat

Cauliflower: Amazing, Purple Grafitti, Purple of Sicily

Eggplant: Ichiban, Ghostbuster

Squash, winter: Waltham Butternut, Table King Bush Acord, Blue Hubbard

Swiss chard: Bright Lights

Garlic: Early Red Italian

Collard Greens: Georgia Southern

Mustard Greens: Florida Broadleaf, Red Giant

Leeks: American Flag

Lettuce: Black Seeded Simpson, Buttercrunch, Green Ice, Little Caesar, Paris Island Cob, Prize Head/Leaf

Onions: Bermuda, Texas 1015Y, Sweet Spanish

English Peas: Maestro, Wando

Edible Pod Peas: Sprint, Sugar Snap

Southern Peas: Alaska, Texas Pinkeye

Irish Potatoes: Caribe, Carola, Desiree, Kennebee, Red LaSoda, Yukon Gold

Radish: Amethyst, Cherry Belle, French Breakfast

Spinach: Winter Bloomdale

Small Tomatoes: Black Cherry, Dona, Porter, Sungold Cherry, Sweet 100

Medium Tomatoes: Carbon, Carnival, Celebrity, Classica, Paul Robeson,

Paste Tomatoes: Roma, San/Super Marzano, Viva Italia

Turnips: Purple Top, White Globe

Plant these varieties and follow the planting schedule and you’ll have a garden brimming with vegetables and herbs. You’ll enjoy the exercise and will be proud that you’re able to contribute to your family’s well-being with fresh, tasty vegetables.

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