Unless your garden is in a greenhouse or indoors, it’s at the whim of the seasons. Though your summer garden plants may be done, the climate is ripe for your fall vegetable garden. Just as the season changes from summer to autumn, gardeners need to transition their gardens plants as well. Fall brings decreased average temperature, changing colors, and nature’s preparation for the following winter.

Fall gardens are known for their rich, rustic vegetables that stand out in the fall backdrop. They are more resilient to cooler, fluctuating temperatures than summer vegetables. However, it’s important that every gardener knows when to protect their plants. Seasonal vegetables grow well within their season’s typical temperature range, but temperatures often vary from the seasonal norm. When it becomes too hot or too cold, gardeners need to step in to help their garden survive.

The following are a few vegetables perfect for your fall garden, as well as some protective measures against unexpected cold temperatures.

Vegetables and USDA Hardiness Zones

Vegetables are generally categorized by season, but there are also regional aspects to consider. The USDA Hardiness Zones identify differentiating areas throughout the US by their annual low temperatures. Zones 8-11, such as the southern and western coasts, are distinguished by more moderate temperatures. Zones 5-7, such as the central to northern regions of the US, have low annual temperatures that frequently reach below freezing.

As fall gardens grow into the winter months, when the lowest temperatures in each zone are reached, you will want to pick vegetables appropriate to your Hardiness Zone.

Turnips, summer squash, broccoli, potatoes, and pumpkins thrive in Zones 8-11. They are known for their fast germination and growth periods, and some gardeners may see a harvest within 60-80 days. Spinach, beets, carrots, kale, and cauliflower are perfect for Zones 5-7, and they can also produce a harvest quickly (within 50-70 days).

You can begin planting fall vegetables in early August and continue through the season. Just keep in mind what the temperature will be at plant maturity, not at planting. Since we’re in October, you should consider that you will be harvesting in late December. If you’re in Hardiness Zones 5-7, you will have the highest chance for frost. Not to worry, though; the fall plant varieties listed above are also frost tolerant!

Protecting Your Fall Vegetables

The transition from summer to fall is usually smooth, and fall temperatures shouldn’t vary too much from predetermined forecasts. However, Mother Nature can be volatile and temperatures can fall lower than anticipated. The later fall months, November and December specifically, can flirt with Zone temperature lows that can be dangerous to your unacclimated fall vegetables.

While temperatures under 50˚F along with wind-chill have a low potential for damaging your garden, with those of 40˚F or lower with wind-chill increasing the potential for damage. Temperatures of 32˚F or lower can damage or kill many types of vegetables. When temperatures radically and unexpectedly drop to the lower 40s and 30s, gardeners should offer a little insulation to their garden.

To protect your garden, your goal should be to retain moisture and warmth. A thick, protective layer of mulch around your plants will defend the soil and roots from cold seeping in as well as keep the remaining warmth from escaping.

Frequently watering your garden at ground level aides in maintaining a steady soil temperate during periods of cold as well. If you’re away from your garden often, consider integrating a garden irrigation system and run it slowly but consistently throughout the day. The roots are the most important part to protect because future growth starts from there.

Warm soil protects the roots from dying even if the leaves and stems wither. However, to protect the leaves and stems during an erratic cold front, cover your garden with a floating row cover cotton sheet or tarp.

While cotton sheets and tarps won’t adversely affect your plants with direct touch, you may want to use supports to carry the weight instead of letting them rest on the plants themselves. The added weight, especially if you receive rain or snow, could break the covered plants.

Fall vegetable gardens provide delicious bounties that match the cooler season. The hearty vegetables go well in soups or hot entrées sure to warm you up as fall temperatures cool down. Planting appropriately for any season is a necessity for success, but as a gardener, you can adapt to irregularities or undesirable climates.

Keep an eye on the health of your plants and the forecasted temperatures as fall progresses. Ensure you’re growing plants that can tolerate the current climate and give them shelter if Mother Nature strays from the temperate norm.