Garden Do-over – Reinventing the garden for fall

The tomatoes hold on for their last hurrah – a feverish push before they succumb to disease or the icy grip of frost.  Cucumbers and squash, looking ragged after a long season, produce as fast as they can as the season comes to a close.  Gardens this summer have had it rough.  From a water-logged beginning to a scorching summer, some people have just had a bad gardening year.

I’ve heard of some gardeners calling it quits early.  Giving up on the forlorn tomatoes and saying farewell to pitiful peppers, gardeners may be ready to pull up stakes and call it quits.  But summer is not over, and the gardening season is far from over!

For those who may have been disappointed by their summer garden, now is an excellent time for a garden reboot.  The time is ripe to plants lots of different vegetables that will grow well into the fall and winter.

In fact, fall is one of the best times of the year to garden.  Aside from cooler temperatures making it more pleasant to garden, there’s often less pressure from diseases and insects to ruin crops.  In addition, some of my favorite things grow in the fall.

Fall is the best time to grow leafy green vegetables.  Lettuce, which does not fare well in the summer, thrives in the cooling temperatures of the fall.  Other leafy greens, such as chard, spinach, and kale are also winners in the fall garden.

Many of the root vegetables, such as turnips, carrots, beets, and radishes are also part of the fall garden revival.  One of my favorite things for fall is a dish of roasted root vegetables, seasoned with rosemary or thyme.  Pickled beets, made with my mom’s old family recipe, are also a favorite.  (I recently took a jar to an impromptu dinner party, where they received rave reviews).

If you choose not to plant a fall crop, I would suggest using a cover crop in garden beds as you remove this year’s plants.  A cover crop will help keep weeds to a minimum and preserve soil structure and nutrients through the winter.  Winter wheat, rye, and crimson clover are good winter cover crops.  Next spring you just cut them down and till them in.  If you have raised beds, I suggest pulling them up and composting them, then adding them back to the beds (since it is hard to till in a raised bed).

In addition to vegetable gardening, there’s plenty of other things to do in the next few weeks.  Fall is the best time to sow and fertilize the lawn.  If you need to sow a new lawn, or just add seed to an existing one, you’ll want to do that in the next few weeks for our cool season grasses.  The grasses we sow will germinate much better in cooler fall temperatures.

It is also time to test soil and fertilize most of the garden and landscape.  Fertilizing in the fall allows nutrients to be absorbed and broken down in the soil to be ready for next year’s growth.  This is especially true if you need to apply lime to adjust soil pH (and most of us do, since our native soil is generally acidic).  It takes a few months for the lime to be broken down and adjust the pH.  Applying it when you plant in the spring won’t be a benefit.

The best way to know what to apply is by doing a soil test.  Yes, there are those little kits available at garden stores where you add soil to a liquid and look for color changes.  Are they accurate?  Probably not.  They’ll get you a ballpark idea, but there are specific tests that are better for the soils we have in West Virginia.  You’ll get a much better idea of what you need by doing a soil test through a university or lab.  Many universities have low or no-cost soil testing available.  Check with your local county extension office to inquire.

Here in West Virginia, soil testing for residents is free through the university.  The form is available at or by picking one up at your local extension office.  Usually, you will need to mail your soil (about ½ cup) along with the form to the lab.  However, if you live in Kanawha County, get your soil sample (with completed form) to my office by September 14 and I will transport it to the lab postage free.

This week in the garden

Apply nitrogen to strawberries

Seed or renovate lawn

Seed fall carrots, spinach, lettuce, turnips, and radishes

Dig potatoes

Divide peonies

Order spring flowering bulbs

Plant crocus

Seed cover crops after removing spent plants

Aerate lawn

Turn compost

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