Late season vegetable planting is ideal for you if:
- You suffer the gardener's equivalent of "empty nest syndrome" and miss watching stuff grow
- You were late out of the gate in spring because, well, life and stuff
- You dedicated your spring and early summer to laying out and preparing your dream garden
- You're just a slacker
Don't worry. Whatever your reason, you're not out of time. You might even get the most reward for your efforts.
Why frost may sweeten your vegetables' flavor
Vegetables best-known for their cold-hardiness also taste better after a hard frost. Stress from cold or freezing temperatures triggers this reaction by sending amino acids and other itty bitty sciency things into motion. The plants then convert glucose to sweeter sugars and starches that protect cellular walls and membranes, reducing moisture loss and internal ice crystal formation. (Nerd alert! You can flashback to 8th-grade science class and learn more about cold tolerance and plant sugars here!)
Not all cool-season plants taste better when the temperatures drop. Many cucurbits, for example, turn bitter if they're stressed, and significant temperature swings will definitely trigger panic attacks. That's why we recommend that you plant cucumbers in early spring unless you live in a mild summer climate.
Excellent veggies for end-of-season planting
Calculate out how deep into the calendar, you can push your harvest with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map before you select your ideal fall-crop vegetables. Your options fall into two general categories: Fast-maturing warm-season vegetables, and cool-season plants that prefer a cold snap to finish them off. Here are some excellent varieties that do well in most continental U.S. states:
Warm-season vegetables for late-starting gardeners
Plants that behaved like sleepy teenagers in spring will race out of their beds when the soil's consistently warm. During the peak summer heat, however, you might want to start them indoors. Choose varieties that mature in fewer than 55 days. You might get away with 60 or even 70 if you're in the southern half of the US. Here are our favorites!
Early White Scallop Summer Squash: These beautiful, compact squash look like little patches of snow, but they'll be long since savored by the time the real stuff shows up. Harvest when they're about 3" in diameter. 45 days.
Early Prolific Straightneck Squash: The name doesn't quite tell all; these are absolutely delicious summer squash with a firm texture. They hold up well to grilling, skewering, or stir-frying, and they don't need butter or seasoning to bring out their flavor. 50 days.
Black Beauty Zucchini Squash: This is the classic heirloom zucchini variety, best harvested when they're 6" to 10" long. You'll be leaving extra zukes on neighbors' doorsteps in the middle of the night just to offload your surplus!
Slenderette Bush Beans: A delicious, string-free variety that matures in 55 days without becoming tough like many other popular bush beans.
Kentucky Blue Pole Beans: These are a cross between the heirloom standards "Kentucky Wonder" and "Blue Lake," and they belong in your garden throughout the summer. Long, straight, crunchy pods are perfect for pickling, freezing, canning, or eating fresh. The expected maturity date is about 58 days, but you can harvest immature pods for salads or stir-frys for texture and flavor. If you grow corn, the stalks should be high enough to support climbing bean plants.
Sugar Sprint Snap Peas: Sweet, tender, prolific, and heat-tolerant, Sugar Sprint peas are our hands-down favorite for fall gardens. They're self-supporting, but they can vine out to about 30" so we like using tomato cages for this variety. 55-60 days.
Tiny Tim Tomato: Some growers report a harvest within 45 days, but we recommend giving them 55 to 60 for a healthy, abundant harvest. These compact cherry tomatoes are fantastic patio container plants
Our favorite rapid-maturing cool-season crops
You'll notice longer maturity dates on a few of the following vegetables, but that's because they do best when nighttime temperatures go down, and the chance for early frost goes up. Hot temperatures tend to make brassicas bolt early. Find an east/southeast-facing spot (especially for brassicas or tender greens) that gets a lot of direct morning to midday sunlight, but shade in the worst heat of the day.
Start slower-growing vegetables, including broccoli and cabbage, indoors if you have a shorter growing season or very hot midsummers. For all but the most tender salad greens, time them to mature around or shortly after your first frost date.
Tokyo Long White Bunching Onions: 65 days. Yep, we said 65 days, but they're pretty hardy. They also do well in pots, as do common and garlic chives. If the weather gets too dicey, you can put them in a sunny window.
Calabrese Broccoli: Most gardeners can reap an excellent crop of Calabrese broccoli if they get their seeds in the ground by the end of July. Like other cruciferous brassicas, they do best when they're zapped with cold weather or even snow. These produce abundant heads—once you pick the main one, others will shoot from the central stem. 60-90 days.
Easter Egg Radish: We love radishes as early-season row-markers for other root crops, and successive planting right up until the first snow. They're colorful, and while they're mild, they're absolutely delicious — even the tender greens. Each bunch produces white, magenta, purple, and intermediary shades, thus the name. And oh, yeah — like most radishes, they mature in fewer than 30 days!
Carrots: Did you know you can keep carrots in the ground as long as the soil doesn't freeze solid? Lots of folks do since they are biennials and built to overwinter. Same goes for other root crops like beets, turnips, and parsnips. We have several varieties that mature in 70 days or fewer and sweeten up when they've been smooched by Jack Frost.
Beets: Beets are making a serious comeback. Pickle them, bake them, use them as food or textile coloring, or eat them raw. On average, they mature in about 60 days. And Early Wonder's often ready to go in fewer than 45.
Purple Top White Globe Turnips: These heirloom varieties have fed Americans (and their livestock) for nearly 150 years. They're extremely hardy, yet their flesh is smooth and mild. Their greens are edible, too. While we prefer to grow them in cultivated soil, old-timers (and many modern homesteaders) plant them to break up poor soils and feed livestock through the winter. Expect them to mature in 55 to 65 days, and pull them up anytime during the winter.
Swiss Chard: If you're worried about spinach bolting in the late summer heat, Swiss Chard makes a great substitute. It grows in 30 to 60 days, depending on whether you're going for baby greens or leaves with a bit more substance.
Assorted Lettuce: We like Lollo Rosso as both baby greens or mature salad greens, and Great Lakes 118 for its frost-tolerance and versatility. Also, we're Michiganders.
Kale: We don't really know of any variety that doesn't grow in fewer than 60 days, but we do think Russian Kale is extra cool since the leaves turn purple when the cold sets in.
Tatsoi Mustard Greens: Stir-fry, sautee, or add to sandwiches and salads as baby greens or, after 55 days, mature leaves.
Bok Choy/Pak Choi: A cool-season favorite, Chinese White Cabbage grows in 40 to 50 days. A favorite for stir-fries!
Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach: This variety can tolerate a bit of heat relative to other spinach, and it matures in 45 to 50 days. We've seen it tolerate the first snow of the season. While this is best-grown as very early spinach, it's a classic heirloom that's perfect for freezing — in your actual freezer, that is.
Cabbage: Pick a cabbage, any cabbage! These hardy veggies are a staple in northern Europe and Asia where seasons are short. Cabbage will tolerate snow, and it stores well in cool cellars or as fermented or pickled condiments.
Tips for growing a late-season veggie garden
The first rule for growing any vegetable crop? Provide them with consistent moisture. This is even more important in late summer when the soil dries quickly, and the sun burns hot. Sporadic irrigation will split root crops, and drought will make them woody and flavorless.
Once the plants have emerged, or you've transplanted seedlings, give them plenty of mulch to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and moderate soil temperatures. Add some fertilizer and a bit of well-aged compost to soil that's supported heavy feeders early in the season, and keep an eye out for pests.
You'll have fewer issues with fungus this time of year, but we still recommend watering at soil level to prevent fungal spores from going airborne.
Cool-season plants grow best when they get limited direct sunlight during the day. After all, they've adapted to thrive in early spring. If you don't have access to an east/southeast facing garden spot, consider planting them behind trellised varieties such as pole beans, cucumbers, and vining squash.
Protect from freezing
While many varieties will tolerate a moderate to heavy frost, you might be able to prolong your tender green season with row covers. You can use these again in early spring if you've vowed to change your procrastinating ways.
You're not alone! Our veggie gardens are late bloomers too.
When's the busiest time of year here at Seed Needs? You guessed it: Spring. It's when we hand-package and ship your seed orders, help customers troubleshoot problems, and make adjustments to our inventory in anticipation of last-minute rushes (as you know, we only sell fresh seeds!). We know all about late-season gardening and a little more than we'd like about weeding and automatic watering systems.As much as we love gardening, our customers come first. If you have any questions about our ornamental, vegetable, and herb seeds, don't hesitate to reach out to us — especially if you have a request for next season's offerings. Our gardens might not be growing, but our family business sure is — thanks to our customers' support, input, and suggestions!