Garden Refresh During the Earth Element Season of Late Summer

[photo: by Greta Hoffman]


“I will not say that I am a Master Gardener, however I am a master at my garden.” - Aaron, gardener/grower/herbalist

Have you ever considered planting a garden in the late summer or early fall? Today we are sharing tips for planting a cool season vegetable garden, bare roots, and wildflowers. There are many benefits of cool season gardening that a spring/summer garden miss out on.

• Many plants produce better in cooler temperatures
• Plant them in succession without the risk of things heating up quickly, forcing them to bolt
• Water less frequently
• Sweat less frequently
• A late summer/fall crop continues to provide you with fresh & healthy food longer
• Saves you money at the store


[photo: my frosty but still-alive Brussels Sprouts in late October]



Since this current time of late summer corresponds to the element of Earth in Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods that are naturally sweet, especially those that grow underground and come out of the earth (like sweet potatoes, beets, sunchokes and carrots, for example), not only strengthen the Earth element within you, they naturally grow well in cooler weather, as well.

To extend your harvest well into autumn and beyond, generally speaking, the best vegetables to grow are the ones that mature quickly and are frost tolerant (in the 30 to 32˚F range - well past the late summer season). Hardy salad greens and root crops are in this category. Consider planting beets, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collards, green onions, potatoes, various types of lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard, kohlrabi, radishes, and parsnips. Believe it or not, some vegetables are even hardier and can survive lower temperatures and may continue to grow between freezes! These include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, carrots, turnips, leeks, and rutabagas. My first year garden included Brussels sprouts which stayed green throughout our Nebraska winter and continued to put out new buds the following spring. What amazing resilience! Keep in mind that even when the vegetable tops wilt, if they are properly protected with mulch the roots will survive, and you can often harvest throughout the winter. I’ve done that with carrots several times. And many culinary herbs are super hardy. My sage plant is going on 3 years now! Using cold frames and/or plastic-covered hoop tunnels are options for extending plant growth during cooler weather gardening too.

If temperatures continue to stay above 80 F, many cool weather vegetable seeds won’t germinate. Never fear! You might consider using grow-lights to start seedlings in late summer. When they are ready, acclimate or harden them off before planting them in the garden by placing them outside in the shade for a few days, and then in full sun for a few more days first.


[photo: fresh Elecampane roots by Shea Harkness] 



We asked our friend, Shea Harkness, a local expert medicinal and culinary herb grower and owner of Curious Roots Herbs, for her advice on planting bare root shrubs and trees. She explains: “Dig a hole about twice the size of the root. Loosen the sides and bottom of the planting hole. Amend the soil you removed with some compost. Position the roots so that the crown of the plant will be at the same level as it originally grew. If there's a graft-union, make sure it is not below the soil level. Fill around the root with the amended soil. If it is a large planting hole, dig about half way, water well, then continue to fill to the desired level. Water again and gently tamp the soil around the root. Mulch with a hardwood mulch but don't let the mulch touch the stem of the plant or bury the crown. Water as needed to keep the soil damp but not soggy until the cold weather comes.” Thanks, Shea!

Regarding the planting of bare roots, since the fall soil is warm the roots will establish themselves faster. And because they are not producing flowers, they will have more energy to send their vigorous roots deep into the soil before winter.


[photo: wildflowers during a recent walk]



Choose your site that provides at least 6 hours of sunlight. Then remove all existing growth from the area (grass, weeds, roots, etc.). Planting should be done after several frosts or a good "killing frost" has occurred to assure that your seeds won't sprout until spring.

For an even distribution of seeds, mix them with dry sand at a ratio of 8 parts sand to 1 part seed. Then spread mixture evenly over the bare soil. Do not rake the area or cover it, wildflower seeds are typically very small and will generally only germinate when exposed to sunlight. Instead, just compress the whole area into the loose soil by walking directly on top of the entire area. And don’t worry about the birds - there’s no stopping them but they shouldn’t make too much of a dent in your seed supply.

There should be no need to water them after spreading since they have been cast after a hard freeze or two and will stay dormant until spring.

When spring arrives with warmer weather, the seeds will sprout early and be well on their way to growing and producing beautiful flowers.


[photo: my beautiful Autumn sedum]



Planting natives will assist in managing “weedy” plants and invasive species. When you match the plant with the growing conditions your property has to offer, everything tends to fall into place and manages itself.

Monarda spp. (Bee Balm)
Echinacea spp. (coneflower)
Anise Hyssop

Blue or Hoary Vervain
Joe Pye Weed

Solomon’s Seal
Black Cohosh

Other Perennials might include:
• Aster
• Astilbe
• Balloon flower
• Bearded iris
• Bleeding Heart
• Catmint
• Daylilies
• Dianthus
• Ferns
• Goldenrod
• Hardy geraniums
• Hosta
• Lady’s mantle
• Lamb’s ear
• Lilies
• Poppies
• Penstemon
• Peonies
• Perennial sunflowers
• Phlox


[photo: a Woolly Bear caterpillar found in fall leaf litter]



Never use pesticides/herbicides, even “natural” ones. There are a number of alternative ways to manage unwanted garden visitors. In the fall, leave your garden “messy”. By letting things die back and stay in place through winter, you’ll be providing not only habitat for hungry birds to forage seeds, but desired shelter for hibernating insects, as well. If you absolutely have to tidy things up, gather up and leave the garden or yard waste in an out-of-the-way pile until the following late spring or early summer, giving the dormant insects or egg sacs time to re-emerge or hatch. This will still allow for a pollinator-friendly habitat through the winter months.

Find more fall gardening tips - to organically amend the soil, to garden organically, to reduce the incidence of pests without applying chemicals, and to garden for pollinators - by visiting our previous blog posts:
“Redefining Garden Ready"
“If You Plant It They Will Come: A Garden For Pollinators", Part 1 and Part 2

Informational resources: Shea Harkness, Curious Roots Herb Farm; Robin Sweetser, Farmer’s Almanac; Niki Jabbour, Savvy Gardening; American Meadows; The Prairie Journal blogs at

See or to learn the importance of soil preparation and how to go about it before planting late summer edibles or wildflowers.


  • Rebecca

    This is a terrific blog on late season gardening—I especially like the organic approach—You are so right, it is best to let the natural balance of bugs and their predators prevail—so right about how even the natural “chemicals” can be destructive

  • Rose Bernstein

    Beautiful pictures along with mighty words of wisdom for the love of the plants. Thank you.

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