Autumn is for Planting: Seed Starting for a Fall Garden

germinate seedlingsNow’s the time to get started in your fall garden. While it’s viable to find starts at the local farmer’s market or the nearby hardware store, nothing is more rewarding than starting your entire garden from seed.

What You Need for Seed-Starting

Since there’s a little bit before your seeds absolutely need to be started, spend some time gathering supplies for the initial phases of your fall garden.

  1. Decide whether or not to use starting trays or starter pots. This could be a professional-grade starting setup or simply reused materials you have lying around the house. Some of the most viable seedlings I’ve received from friends were in plastic cups with drainage holes poked in the bottom.
  2. Finding the right seeds is important too. Think regionally, sourcing your seeds from reputable sources, or consider those that work well in your fall and winter climate. Disease-resistant varieties help you control some of the maintenance that may be required as your plants flourish.
  3. A good seed starting mix is important too. You can buy a premade mix or fashion your own from 1 part peat moss, 1 part perlite (medium and fine grain), 1 part homemade compost, a handful of azomite, a handful of kelp meal and a homemade worm tea to moisten and inoculate. Or simplify this recipe to include peat moss, perlite and compost, leaving out the additions.
  4. Finding a sunny window or grow lights isn’t important at first, but will be as your seedlings grow into viable transplants. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but once their leaves unfold, they rely on it to proliferate.
  5. Seeds definitely need warmth and humidity for germination. A heating mat provides the former, and domes or plastic wrap affixed to your starting pots or trays provides the latter. Once the seedlings get large enough, remove the cover to allow for more growth.

Starting Seeds

After gathering your materials, it’s time to get started. Fill your pots with your starting mix, pressing down lightly to compact the soil slightly. Then lightly water the soil. Plant your seeds and cover your pots or trays with a dome or plastic.

A tray-dome combo is a great way to begin. Trays with open spaces at the bottom air-prune roots and help them develop more readily. Soil blocking is another starting option that allows you to remove the potential for root disturbance in the transplant process.

Place your starter trays or pots on a heating mat. As they grow, remove the cover and place them under appropriate amounts of light. Adjust your light source as needed and don’t forget to rotate the plants a quarter turn daily to help them develop healthy roots. Keep the soil moist and trim away less viable seedlings as needed.


Most seedlings are ready for transplant when they reach 2 to 4 inches tall, hardening them off if you’re going to transplant them outdoors. Mind you, it’s completely feasible to maintain many plants indoors with the right tools. And a cold frame helps your seedlings withstand snap freezes that may occur in early fall.

After they’ve been exposed to the elements and have adjusted accordingly, plant your seedlings in a raised bed, containers, planter boxes or in-ground. Mulch around the base with your preferred material. Not only does mulch provide a passive fertilizer to the soil and your plants, but it also protects roots in hard freezes.

Which Crops to Grow

Now that we’ve covered a little about setting up your fall garden, let’s explore some cultivars best suited to the season. Remember, growing a variety of plants is not only great for the soil, it brings in different wildlife that can help you along the way.

Fall Flowers

While flowers may not be as important in winter when pollinators are hidden away in winter safety, we all need a little pick-me-up as the days get shorter. Tatarian asters bloom in early fall and last until almost the end of the season. Their lovely purple flowers need some time to get established but provide gardeners with years of perennial blooms.

The Charter’s series of Hollyhocks includes cold-hardy double flowers, reminding growers of the abundance yet to be found in spring. Try Charter’s double mix for pink, yellow, white and red blooms that are showy in fall and overwinter for three more sets of blooms next year.

Try the Golf variety of alyssum flowers in the fall and sometimes into early winter depending on the regional climate. Their carpets cover areas with lovely smelling flower clusters, providing a habitat for pollinators who are still doing some work in the early holiday season.

Larkspur, poppies, penstemon and cosmos are other flowers that bloom long and self-seed, emerging again in spring. Provide all your flowers with a bit of mulch at the end of the season to keep their roots or seeds-in-waiting warm in winter.


Kale is an easy fall and winter crop that everyone can enjoy. Whether you prefer these greens in chip form or baked into your favorite quiche, there’s no stopping them in cool seasons. A classic Lacinato is great for gardeners of all skill levels. The anthocyanin-filled Redbor variety adds a splash of color to a fall garden and a different nutrient profile in the kitchen.

Collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage are obvious choices too. Collard Big Daddy Greasy Greens are roughly a 65-year-old variety and will survive multiple touches of frost in a season. Their prolific heads provide leafy goodness throughout the fall season, into winter.

If mustard greens are what you spring for, try the fast-growing variety, Florida broadleaf, which grows 25 inches in just 45 days. A succession schedule that involves multiple plantings of this lovely cultivar will give you spice for soups into late fall and early winter.

Bok choy is another brassica packed with nutrition that makes winter meals much more special. Despite its name, Black Summer bok choy is ready for harvest in winter. Its dark green leaves can withstand both frosty climates and the heat of your wok.

Root Vegetables

Underground veggies are great for a winter or early spring harvest. For an interesting variety of carrots, include Black Nebula in your mix. These dark purple carrots are great when juiced or roasted with other root vegetables. Parsnips can accompany your nebulas, specifically the 12-inch Harris Model, which takes roughly 75 days to mature.

The more bulbous beets and radish make wonderful additions to sandwiches, roasted medleys and your annual pickling. Try the bicolor Masquerade variety for an interesting look and rich flavor. You’ll only have to wait 63 days to harvest them.


Winter field peas, like Alaska peas, are great nitrogen fixers and are an heirloom from back in the 1880s. They love frost, which sweetens the pods as they mature on their vines. For fava beans, look for cold-hardy Sweet Lorane, which has a thin skin that doesn’t require peeling before cooking.

Dwelley chickpeas are cold-hardy and disease resistant. Alternatively, try the blue-green speckled lentil variety, Puy, which is best for soups and salads. This French variety is built for the cold fall and winter months.


You want to add spice to your fall flavor profile, so look no further than onions, garlic and leeks. Evergreen Long White bunching onions are a 1-foot-long variety that you can start in fall and overwinter into the following spring. Walla walla sweet onions offer a classic yellow onion taste that you harvest in spring.

Alliums make great companions for cabbage, lettuce and beets, improving their overall flavor. If onions aren’t your favorite flavor, try garlic. Porcelain is a cold-hardy cultivar hardneck that offers a good harvest for every gardener, no matter how seasoned they are.

Leeks make a delectable spring treat in soups, egg dishes and bread. Shoot for Siegfried for plentiful greens that top substantial white stems and root bases.


Many of the herbs you grow in summer can also withstand winter harshness. Chives are an easy addition to the garden, needing very little care or nutrition. Chives are evergreen in mild-winter regions, but die back and go dormant in cold-winter regions. Thyme varieties can flavor dishes or cover areas of exposure in the ground or raised beds. Juniper thyme, wooly pink and orange balsam are three varieties that bring diverse notes to your culinary experiences.

Arp rosemary thrives in heat or cold and has plump leaves perfect for teas, chicken dishes or root veggie roasts. Like all of the herbs listed here, its flowers attract pollinators when you don’t feel like harvesting. Greek oregano is an annual that can act like a perennial if you let it flower, attract bees and seed out.

Sorrel is a surprising herb for most North American gardeners, with a few cold-hardy varieties. English sorrel adds a dash of fruity herbiness wherever it’s spread. Large leaf sorrel provides wide leaves perfect for soups and meat dishes.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are great to plant in empty garden spaces. They condition the soil for your winter sowing and provide coverage. At the end of their time, you can reap what you sowed and chop them down to act as mulch for your beds. Another great benefit to cover crops is you don’t have to start them indoors. Simply broadcast them.

Cool-season coverings include red clover, Dutch white clover, winter wheat and rye and hairy vetch. All of these affix nitrogen into the soil for your winter crops. For adding biomass to the growing media, consider a thick planting of spinach, which can be chopped, frozen and added to smoothies and soups as needed.

Seasonal Extension

One of the most important cool and cold weather gardening techniques is knowing how to extend the season. Experienced gardeners know the benefits of row covers and cold frames as viable ways to keep crops going even when the elements beg to differ. You can create a cold frame from reclaimed wood and a window, crafting it in fall to prepare for the cold.

A hoop tunnel is perfect for row crops. Crafting one of your own from PVC pipes, rebar and shade cloth is also relatively inexpensive. If time is of the essence, consider purchasing a kit from your local garden store. A bell-shaped cloche is more individualized, covering one to two plants at a time. Wrap these with a frost or shade cloth to provide more protection in cold weather.

About The Author

Kevin Espiritu is the author of “The Field Guide to Urban Gardening.” This article is provided as an educational and inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and its members.