There's No Point in Starting a Garden in the Fall, Right?
"It's too late to start my garden this year. I'm just going to have to wait until next year."
"I feel like I totally missed the boat. I should've started my garden back in April, but I was too busy."
"Oh, I so would love to have a garden like yours, but I missed the timing. I'll try next year."
These are just some of the comments I've recently heard from my neighbors. If you're thinking along these lines, as well, I've got some very good news for you.
It is never too late to start a garden.
Don't believe me? I'll explain. First, let's talk about what your first frost date means (and doesn't mean) because most of us have the completely wrong idea about the "end" of gardening season.
What Is a First Frost Date?
Your first frost date is the average date of the first light freeze in fall for your area. Note the word "average". These are just estimations based on historical climate data. The weather, as you know, doesn't care what meteorologists or gardeners say.
Let's clarify what light freeze means: It's when temps range from 29 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit; this type of freeze is often enough to kill more tender plants like basil and tomatoes.
Knowing this date for your area helps you figure out what you can plant and when, no matter where you're gardening.
How to Find Your Frost Dates
All you have to do is search "first and last frost date [name of your city or town] [year]" in Google to find the predicted first and last frost dates for your area.
Here are some sites that might appear in your results that I've found helpful:
Home Depot also has a helpful frost date calendar.
I like how the results on Dave's Garden tell you the date range when you're most likely to have frost. Here in Nashville, Tennessee, for instance, my official first and last days of frost are October 28 and April 6, but Dave's Garden informs me I'm almost certain to have frost between November 13 and March 23. That makes it easier for me to remember that I'm likely to have frost from November through March.
Mark your first and last frost dates on your calendar.
Why Does Knowing Your Frost Dates Matter?
Your frost dates do not tell you when you can and cannot garden.
Let me say that again for the people in the back: You do not have to shut down your garden on your first frost date and wait until your last frost date to plant again.
These dates are not bookends on your gardening season. You can absolutely continue to garden after your first frost date in the fall or winter and then begin to plant before your last frost date in the late winter or spring.
The only thing your first frost date tells you is when your warm season ends and your cool season begins.
The only thing your last frost date tells you is when your cool season ends and your warm season begins.
If you're wondering how to define cool and warm seasons, here's a breakdown:
- Your cool season is when your average monthly temps are between 35 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a likely chance of frost and snow.
- Your warm season is when your average monthly temps are between 65 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit and wintry weather is unlikely.
There is plenty of gardening to do in your cool season. In fact, cool season plants are some of my favorites! That means, if you wait until the spring to start your garden, you'll miss out on all those cool season plants.
What's a Plant Hardiness Zone and Why Does It Matter?
Go on almost any gardening forum or social media page, and you'll see one question often repeated: WHAT ZONE ARE YOU IN?
The Plant Powers That Be came up with zones based on average temperatures and frost dates. The colors on the map below represent different gardening zones in the US, with blue, purple, and pink being the the cooler zones and orange, yellow, and light green being the warmer zones.
I've gardened in several different zones, from 9b (Houston) to 5a (Chicago), and even though lots of gardening experts will tell you to learn your gardening zone before planting, what the zones tell me I can do and what I experience in my garden have been quite different.
Hardiness zones are often too general to tell you much about what's actually possible in your unique climate. Plus, these zones make your first and last frost dates seem like the most significant times of the year, leading new gardeners to believe that they can only grow between those two points. This is why people get this idea that it's too late to start a garden in the fall or even in the summer.
There is much more to the kitchen garden than zones and even frost dates. This is why I developed my kitchen garden seasons system. The best way to know what's possible in your unique garden is to know your garden's seasons and to have a general understanding of your weather for each month of the year. This will ultimately be more helpful and specific to your location.
At What Point Is It Too Late to Start a Garden?
I don't believe that you're stuck to only grow during the period between your two frost dates. It's easy to think there is a right time and a wrong time to start a garden when every big box store is pushing all their garden products in the spring and then sold out of everything by July.
Listen, it is never too late to start a garden because there are things that can always be growing in the garden, even when it's covered in snow. (I mean, most plants are not technically growing at that point, but they're sitting there ready to grow whenever the temperatures rise.)
When Is the Best Time to Start a Garden?
The time to start is now, even if it's late summer or fall. If you wait till spring, you'll not only miss out on some of the best plants to grow in the kitchen garden, you'll also gain zero gardening experience in the meantime. Even if you try to plant something now and fail, you'll gain important knowledge about growing in your area.
Instead of asking if it's too late to start a garden, focus on whether it's the right or wrong time to grow certain plants. This should be the case whether you're setting up your garden in the middle of summer or the dead of winter. Your goal is to create an ideal home for the type of plants that grow in your current temperature range.
Plants are programmed from the very beginning with particular needs, and different kinds of plants have different kinds of needs. With this in mind, the three most important questions to ask yourself before you plant something are:
- How much time is it going to take for this plant to grow to the point where I can harvest from it? Thirty days, 45 days, 70 days, 90 days?
- What kind of temperatures does this plant thrive in? Does it like it when it's cool, hot, or somewhere in between?
- Do I have enough days in the plant's preferred temperature range to grow it to maturity in my garden?
Here's How to Know If It's Too Late to Plant Something
So, let's say you're going to start a garden in July. Consider your current temperatures and the length of time before your temperatures change. Prioritize the plants that thrive in your current setting. When you do that, it sets you up for success, no matter what time of the year you start your garden. Let's look at an example.
Is It Too Late to Grow Tomatoes?
Let's say I want to grow a tomato, and it's July 1st. If I buy a young tomato plant, it should be ready to harvest in about 60 days. Tomatoes like temperatures that range from about 65°F to 85°F. If I'm in Houston, July 1st would still be way too hot for tomato plants. Temperatures will regularly spike over 95° for the next two months or so. In this case, I'm better off waiting for the cooler fall to grow tomatoes.
If I'm in Chicago, I could consider planting a tomato if I have the space. I know that it will be in the 70s and 80s until at least mid September, when the fruits would be ready for harvest after growing for 60 days or so. I've got enough time before frost (which typically kills tomato plants) to grow the plant to maturity and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Let's look at another example.
Is It Too Late to Grow Okra?
Okra takes 90 days to finish up and prefers temps over 90 degrees.
If I'm in Houston, July is the perfect time to plant okra because I know I've got a good 60 to 90 more days where the temperatures are over 90 degrees. That means okra will have plenty of time to grow and produce before my temps drop too much.
If I'm in Chicago, it is, unfortunately, too late to plant okra. I would have needed to get okra in the ground earlier in order for it to grow to its full maturity (no later than June). About 90 days from July 1st is going to put me into October, and I know very well that the temperature starts to drop quickly. It doesn't mean it's too late to start a garden entirely, it just means it's not the time to start an okra garden.
There's Always Something You Can Grow in Your Garden
Apply these time and temperature considerations to anything you're considering growing in your garden. The great thing is there's always something that works, which means you can always start a garden. It's never too late. It just matters what you put into that garden.
It may be too late to grow tomatoes in your Chicago garden in September because you'll be getting cold weather soon, but you could still grow carrots, radishes, and lettuce plants. Those plants will have the right time and temperature to grow to maturity. Isn't this a better way to look at the garden?
Even if you get the timing wrong, you might be surprised by how resilient plants can be. I can't tell you how many times I've planted something and the critics are saying, "Oh, it's too late for that," or "That doesn't grow during that season," or "It's just going to bolt." And then I end up having some success with it. Maybe not stellar success, but I like to push the limits and see what's possible. That's how I learn.
My advice to you is to just go for it. If you plant something outside of its optimal growing window, you'll learn more about the plant and its lifecycle. You may get some production or you may not. There's no plant police to come get you for planting stuff at the wrong time. It's fun to treat the garden more like a place of learning rather than a place where we have to get everything right all the time.
But What About the Middle of Winter?
If you're in a warm climate like Texas, Florida, Arizona, or somewhere closer to the equator, you can really grow year round. In Houston, they never shut their gardens down. November is actually one of the most wonderful times to start a garden in climates like Houston because there are so many things you can put into the garden that will thrive during the cooler parts of the year, even if there are a couple days with frost.
If you're in a moderate climate, your frost dates cover three or four months of the year. You can garden under covers well into those frost dates and only close the garden for about two months.
A cold climate like Chicago is between frost dates from the beginning of October all the way to the middle of May. They do have to shut the garden down for about three or four months, unless they have a greenhouse or cold frames. But that doesn't mean they can't have things underneath those covers or even underneath the snow that are settling in and waiting to grow when the snow melts. Things like garlic and young carrots can hang out in the garden all winter long.
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Steps to Start a Garden in Any Month
Here is how you are going to make it happen.
First, understand your current season and temperatures. Take some time to chart the temperatures that are coming your way in the next three months. Figure out which plants are going to grow well over the next three months.
Check with local suppliers first, like the farmers' market and local nurseries. See what seeds and plants they have that will work in those three months. Buy from them first, then you can order online, and build your garden as quickly as you can. It doesn't have to be perfect. Done is better than perfect.
Plant things that will be ready to harvest within 45 to 60 days if you're squeezing in growth mid-season.
It's Never Too Late to Start a Garden
Marketing companies are really great at making us think we have to do things at certain times, like buying chocolate on Valentine's Day. Don't be fooled just because things are sold out or commercials aren't talking about gardening anymore. That does not mean that it's too late.
I challenge you to think of yourself as a pioneer, far across the sea from the marketing companies and everything you've known. You've just arrived on the shores of your new land in July, and you need to settle and survive the summer, fall, and winter. Are you going to wait till spring to start growing something? No, you're not. You're going to hurry up and plant whatever you have available. And you're going to try to get as much out of the land as you possibly can, learn all you can, and be ready for next spring.
If you want to start a garden or expand a garden, commit to setting up your garden as soon as possible, and then you can decide what plants to put in given your current season. Put some seeds in the ground and see how it goes. Make the most of this season; don’t let it pass without getting your garden set up!