It may seem strange to start a vegetable garden in autumn, which for many areas is at the end of the official growing season, but with a bit of care and planning it can be extremely successful. You can have delicious veg growing all winter, outside in your own back garden. What could be better!
Do This for an Improved Success Rate
Prepare the soil well. All types of soil benefit from a soil conditioner in autumn. Only add nutrients where you’ve grown greedy crops during the summer and where the soil is dry and hungry (sandy soils for example). Plants don’t use much nutrient in winter, so anything you put down is likely to be wasted, and just washed through into the water table.
Feed dry, sandy soils with organic material such as rotted manure, or home made garden compost.
Clay soil always needs soil conditioner. Use rotted leaves, or purchase a bagged conditioner based on composted woody or green waste. No need to feed clay soils in winter as they are usually fertile enough.
If your soil gets heavy and waterlogged then set up raised beds. Buy in bags of topsoil to bulk up what you have, and improve with organic material. Mix everything up together; don’t have a layer of one sort of soil on top of another. Plants don’t like growing out of one sort to another, and can stop growing. Remember to add rotted leaves whenever you can. They are the gold standard of soil conditioner.
Plant sturdy seedlings and if possible, into still-warm soil; It’s best to get seeds going in pots or trays first. Germination can be hit and miss if the soil is too cool.
Choose what you plant carefully though. Some vegies can thrive and still produce well as the months get cooler; but others won’t. Some will do well in warmer climates but may sit just and do nothing in cool areas.
What to sow and plant in autumn and winter
Broad beans – sow seed in early autumn in pots or trays, and plant out when seedlings are well developed. Will withstand most winter weather.
Chervil – sow seed into the soil in early autumn and protect young plants in icy weather. Chervil will run to seed in hot weather so an autumn sowing should give you plants until early summer. Tolerates partial shade.
Garlic – plant early/late winter. Harvest following summer.
Lettuce – another hot weather hater. Sow seeds of cut-and-come-again varieties into the soil in early autumn for cropping before it gets too cold. Cover with fleece or cloches to extend the growing season. Sow seeds of winter varieties in pots or trays in a cold greenhouse, or cool room, then transplant outside for growing over winter and eating next spring. Tolerates partial shade.
Spinach - sow seeds in the ground in early autumn. Sow thickly for use as cut-and-come-again, or thinly for individual plants. Protect in icy weather. Can also been sown and transplanted, as lettuce. Like chervil, it will run to seed once the weather warms up. But you should get young leaves in early winter, then again in spring. Tolerates partial shade.
Carrot - sow seeds in late summer/early autumn for a young carrot crop in autumn/early winter. Cover with fleece or cloches mid-autumn.
Onions - sow seeds of Japanese varieties in early autumn, or plant onion sets mid to late autumn.
Shallots – plant late autumn through to late winter for a summer crop.
Parsnip – sow seed in early autumn as warmth is needed for good germination. If your soil is heavy or stony, grow short-rooted varieties. Can be slow to germinate, so mark rows clearly just in case you forget.
Parsley – sow seeds early to mid autumn. Parsley can be slow to germinate in open soil. Trying sowing in pots, on a windowsill or cool greenhouse, and plant out when seedlings are large enough to handle. Protect young plants from slugs and snails. Germination can sometimes be speeded up by pouring boiling water onto the freshly sown seeds!
Brassicas - in cool areas cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts need to be started by mid-January to be successful in warmer areas they can be started in autumn; in cooler areas plant well-grown seedlings in autumn. However Broccoli can be sown in early autumn in cool areas. Choose your brassicas with care. They are going to be growing for quite a long time. And they will become very bushy, so make sure you’ve got enough space. And always grow the ones that are expensive to buy! Why grow ordinary cabbages when you can grow something special like black kale (Nero di Toscana for example), or purple sprouting broccoli.
Peas – for a late spring crop, sow in mid to late autumn. Protect from mice! Often better to germinate in trays and plant out seedlings. Peas prefer cooler growing conditions so if you’re in a hot spot, an autumn sowing succeed.
Radish - sow seeds early autumn, then again in late winter. Never allow soil to become dry. Sow short rows frequently, and pull as soon as they are ready.
Beetroot - sow bolt-resistant round cultivars for small beets that will be ready in late spring; helps if they are under some protection in the worst winter weather.