Those warm summer days seem like the perfect time to get down with your green thumb, when the weather is fine and the living is easy. But according to the pros, labeling summer as the best — and often the only — season to grow remains one of the biggest myths in the gardening community. Rachel Oppedahl of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources explains that spring and fall are the prime times for most garden planting. Research confirms that planting in cooler and wetter seasons can make it easier for plants and seeds to survive. Kansas State University horticulturists call fall an "often overlooked" season and an "excellent time for gardening," especially in a region like Kansas.
Great news, gardeners who have been dreading throwing in your trowel at the end of summer: Gardening season just got a few months longer. While not every plant fares well in cooler temps, there are plenty of hardy plants that can thrive in the fall. In honor of autumn, we asked several top gardening experts for their input on cultivating a foolproof fall garden:
Here's your first big opportunity to flower up your fall garden: Susan Brandt, cofounder of Blooming Secrets, says that while favorite fall flowers like pansies and chrysanthemums (more on those later) get all the attention, if you haven't grown calendulas before, you're missing out. "Calendulas resemble mums in their appearance, and like mums, they are great in both containers and flower beds," explains Brandt. "They also work well in bouquets and have been popular choices in cottage gardens for generations. The colors of the flowers are usually yellow, gold or orange, and they are beautiful when mixed with plants that have blue or purple flowers."
There's one special reason to add carrots to your fall gardening list, and it's not just because they're a well-known hardy fall vegetable like beets and radishes. Leave carrots in the ground through the cold winter months, and they'll actually grow sweeter as they produce more sugar to fight off the cold, explains Cam MacKugler, founder and CEO of Cloudfarm.
Consider this "food for thought" if you're planning a healthy fall garden to offset the notoriously unhealthy fall holiday months. Not only are greens delicious and nutritious, but they're also great at withstanding the cold when temperatures start to drop. MacKugler calls chard a top fall garden plant, known for its "famous" frost-fighting ability among seasoned gardeners.
This plant's "rugged" name might turn you off at first glance, but don't kick it out of your fall garden yet. Aaron von Frank, cofounder and CEO of GrowJourney, describes chickweed as "a dense, low-growing veggie that tastes like spinach but packs more nutrition." He continues, "It's incredibly vigorous (grows like a weed), requiring very little care. An added benefit for anyone who raises backyard chickens or ducks is that your fowl will also love this cold-hardy veggie."
Chrysanthemums are one of the most popular plants in the world for a reason: "Mums" are really, really easy to grow, especially in the fall. Brandt says of the pretty perennials, "Their blooms can last a long time; in the right environment, they can bloom for up to six weeks. They're usually not bothered by insects, and their only demands are full sun, regular fertilization and soil that's not too damp. They also come in a variety of colors, including red, orange, yellow and white, just to name a few, and the flowers can come in different shapes as well."
Despite its south-of-the-border association, cilantro grows surprisingly well in a festive fall garden. Cilantro is an extremely cold-hardy herb that thrives in cool weather, explains von Frank. "We actually had cilantro survive uncovered last winter down into single digit temps."
Gardeners love croton because of its never-say-die perennial nature, along with its colorful, and even tropical, foliage. Croton leaves grow in a full spectrum of colors, like purples, pinks, greens, yellows, oranges, reds and white. "Croton is always a great option," says Helen Miller, florist on BloomNation and co-owner and designer of Houston's Two Sassy Chicks. "I've planted on the south side of my home, and because Houston has mild winters, the plant lasted for about three years. Make sure to keep them watered and don't let them dry out!"
If you're looking for one good reason to eat kale, besides the fact that all the cool kids are doing it, just think of how easy it is to grow. Along with chard, MacKugler considers kale another renowned frost-fighter. "This veggie has become all the rage in recent years, and it grows great in fall, even without protection. There are tons of wonderful heirloom varieties to choose from, and some of the most cold-hardy are the 'Russian' varieties: White Russian, Red Russian, etc.," von Frank says. For those who still can't bring themselves to stomach this trending green, Brandt recommends its more attractive cousin. Brandt says ornamental kale, otherwise known as flowering kale, has "fancier and more colorful" foliage that can brighten up a garden until spring.
You've probably noticed an interesting shift in the produce section, depending on the season — lettuce is one common vegetable with unpredictable prices that can fluctuate based on weather conditions. "Fortunately, it is also one of the easiest vegetables to grow," Brandt adds. "It doesn't take up too much space in your garden either. Lettuce is best grown in USDA zones 4 through 9 as it is a cool weather vegetable and too much heat will damage its leaves and negatively impact its flavor."
Chrysanthemums may be the flower that most gardeners associate with fall — because they're so darn easy to grow — but Brandt insists pansies come in a close second. Along with calendulas, Brandt says, "Pansies should really be on every gardener's list of fall favorites. There are a lot of good reasons for this as pansies come in a variety of colors and are easy to grow, but I enjoy the fact that I get two seasons of bloom from them for the price of one plant. Pansies can put on a stunning display deep into the fall in USDA zones 4 through 8, and they are so tolerant of the cold that they will come back and do it all over again in the spring!"
If you happen to live in one of the coldest regions of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, don't despair. Spinach may be the little fighter you need to save your fall garden, even in freezing temps. Von Frank describes Popeye's beloved green vegetable as an "extremely cold-hardy, popular green." He tells SheKnows, "Like cilantro, our spinach survives uncovered into single digits. You can also select the most cold-hardy varieties if you live in a particularly cold climate region."
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