Foolproof Tips For Gardening Once It’s No Longer Hot Outside

Let it grow

by Vanessa Friedman

Gardening is magic. Put a seed in the ground, let it soak up some sun and some rain, and watch it slowly grow into something beautiful that you can very often put in your mouth and eat; just try to tell me the whole endeavor isn’t intuitive witchcraft at its finest.

This summer, I grew my very first garden, and it had me transfixed. My gardening chores became an integral part of my daily routines, and the rituals of caring for my plants and letting them care for me in return soothed my often overly anxious brain in a way I had never experienced before. But as the long, hot summer days have begun to give way to chilly fall mornings, I started to wonder what would become of my gardening practice. All summer long I’d reveled in the literal fruits of my labor. Would autumn have to be the official farewell to my garden for this year?

Thank the goddesses, the answer to that question is no. Just because North American summer has come to a close, does not mean it’s time to put one’s garden to bed just yet. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where winters are notoriously more gentle than in other parts of the country, so I am blessed with a particularly long gardening season, but even if you live in a location with a harsh winter, now is a perfectly reasonable time to coax some more magic out of Mother Earth. 

Let’s talk about some beautiful and/or delicious plants you can start growing right now and how you can go about doing this if you have never gardened before.

What to Plant in Your Autumn Garden

The days are getting shorter and cooler, but there are many things that still want to grow in the ground and produce heartily right up until first frost. While now is not the time to try to grow prolific tomato vines or tall sunflowers, here are some things you can plant successfully this time of year: leafy greens, herbs, hearty vegetables, garlic, and many different kinds of flowers. 

Some of these things will provide instant gratification, and some will be gifts to your future self. Let’s review which are which. 

Hearty vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs are all great things to plant right now and enjoy immediately. One of my farmer friends recently gave me a long list of vegetables that do very well in cool weather including broccoli, carrots, kale, radishes, and brussels sprouts. Leafy greens will also often thrive in cooler temperatures, so try butter lettuce, spinach, and swiss chard. If you’re really worried about planting outdoors in the fall (though you shouldn’t be!) you can get a head start on your indoor winter herbs: basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, mint, and chives can all be grown outdoors this time of year or indoors all winter long.

Planting garlic bulbs in the fall will bring you great joy come spring and summer of next year. Garlic is the thing I am most excited to plant in my autumn garden because it is so easy and really yields two harvests: first the garlic scapes in late spring, and then the garlic bulbs in mid-summer. Plus it is a plant that actually benefits from being planted this time of year, with the Old Farmer’s Almanac promising bigger and more flavorful bulbs if you put your cloves in the ground now.

Flowers can be a mixture of quick and easy gardening joy and patient gardening surprise. If you want to include some colorful blossoms in your garden to enjoy through the autumn weather, I’d recommend buying fully grown plants at your local nursery and popping them in the ground right away. Some great suggestions for this time of year include calendula (a medicinal plant that comes in shades of orange and yellow), ornamental peppers (currently gracing my window box and looking exactly as they sound), winter jasmine (another yellow blossom that unfortunately doesn’t smell as delicious as you may expect, given its name, but is pretty and uplifting nonetheless), and violas (like tiny, more resilient pansies). If you’re looking to create some magic for your future self, you can plant flower bulbs now and delight in their arrival come spring. Some options for bulbs include tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and lilies.

What Exactly Does It Mean to “Plant a Garden”

So okay, now that we’ve established all the options you have to plant the garden of your dreams this late in the year, let’s backtrack: What exactly am I suggesting you do? Well, time is of the essence, so the best tip is to just go for it. If that sounds overwhelming, I get it. Back in April, when I started planning for my summer garden, I felt completely consumed by fear. I’d never been in charge of my own garden before, and every choice brought about a new round of anxiety. What if I picked the wrong kind of starts? What if the soil in my yard was all wrong? What if nothing I planted ever produced fruit? What if I was bad at growing things? What if what if what if… 

All my friends urged me to just buy some seeds, buy some starts, and put stuff in the ground, but I overthought it to a ridiculous degree. What can I say, it’s in my Capricorn-sun, Virgo-rising nature. Eventually, I made a friend come to my house with her girlfriend and help me dig a couple of holes into which I plopped my tomato starts. She ruefully pointed out how ridiculous it was to have three adult humans digging two reasonably small holes for two very small plants, but I had felt helpless without her direction. 

It turns out everyone was right, though. As soon as I got brave and started digging the holes on my own and sprinkling seeds without fear and just doing it all when it came to the act of gardening, I realized how intuitive the act of growing things is. 

We are humans. We know how to do this. The seeds are alive. They know how to do this, too. 

Do you feel scared about the idea of planting a garden? Acknowledge that fear and then ignore the heck out of it. 

Do some research if it makes you feel more in control (it always makes me feel more in control). Chat with the folks at your local nursery, bombard Google with all your questions, or check a gardening book out from the library. Ask friends who have gardened in your neighborhood. Ask the farmers at your local farmer’s market. People who grow things want to talk about it with other people—it’s in our nature. All this growing inspires the desire to share the bounty, whether that means actual food or a bouquet of flowers or just the knowledge that comes from getting down in the dirt on your hands and knees for hours at a time to rid your raised bed of all those pesky weeds.

Once you’ve done your research, buy some seeds, and/or some starts, and/or some bulbs and put them in the ground. Read the labels and see how much sunlight they need; choose where to plant them accordingly. See how much water they need; follow instructions. If you see weeds popping up around the plants, remove them. Follow your intuition. Don’t be afraid to fuck up. You can’t really ruin anything in the garden; it can almost always be fixed, and often it will fix itself if you just remove yourself. Mother Earth is wise like that. She knows what she’s doing. 

I don’t know how to talk about my deep dive into gardening this year without sounding like a New Agey scientist witch. Planting things has deepened my relationship with Mother Earth, my surroundings, and myself. I feel powerful, even when thinking about my gardening failures. At the end of the day, my garden is an experiment. When I fail, I learn. Remember that. Try not to be competitive with yourself about how “successful” your gardening project is or is not. This frees you from the idea of “getting it right” the first time around and allowed me, at least, to get over myself and finally just put the plants in the ground, no three-person entourage required any longer when digging two small holes.

The times gardening has rendered me most anxious are the times I have tried too hard to be the one in control. When I give myself over to the plants, to the elements, to the earth, to their needs, I find calm. 

When I listen to my garden, we both grow and thrive. I wish the same for you, this autumn season and every season thereafter.