Want to grow winter vegetables? Start planning in summer.
The timing for preparing for a cool-season garden starts in late August and early September. It can be difficult to cave in and dig up those squash and tomato plants, but the reality is that, as the temps go down, the quality of the summer vegetables declines because they are not making as much sugar. Let them go and start preparing your soil for a new crop.
Seeds: start some indoors, plant others directly in the garden
Now is the time to start planting cool season seeds indoors. Make sure the packet says that the variety is for fall and winter planting and growth. Check seed packages for germination time, and work backwards from your tentative planting day. If the seed packet says germination is 31 days and you want to plant it in your veggie garden on September 10, start the seeds on August 15. Planting from seed gives you more choices and is cheaper.
Some winter crops can be planted by seed directly into the garden. These include arugula, chard, kale, radishes, spinach, lettuces, turnips, beets and peas. Some of these crops that we also plant in spring, such as lettuce and spinach, actually do better when they are not exposed to long, hot summer days that encourage them to bolt (produce flowers and seeds) or become bitter.
Starts: head to the nursery to see what’s available
Planting from seed gives you more choices and is cheaper, but sometimes instant gratification is a good thing. Plus, it may be too late to start some cool season crops from seed. In that case, you can buy starts from your local nursery. You will definitely need to buy starts of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, which need to be planted by the end of August so that there is enough warm weather to allow the plants to develop a good root system.
The nurseries are definitely stocking a wider variety of vegetables from which to choose. A six-pack of any one thing may be too much for you, so it is fun to share a bit of this or a bit of that with friends.
Important reminders for winter edibles
- Plant what you like to eat and where you can access the crop easily, especially when the garden gets muddy.
- Practice good garden hygiene. Clean up any summer debris. This can provide the first line of defense against insect and disease pests.
- Provide fertile, well-drained soil. After a long summer growing season, amend the soil with a generous serving of compost that will give the new crop a fresh shot of balanced nutrients.
- The days may be shorter and the shadows cast by buildings and trees are longer, but even winter vegetables like at least six hours of sun each day. Think about how the fall/winter sun travels through your garden each day.
- Roots like warm soil. In mostly temperate Marin, we generally do not get frost until later in the year (and some of us near the coast never get frost), but establishing plants while the soil is still warm gives them a better shot at establishing a strong root base. A good mulch layer also provides the plants some protection.
- We may not see rain start for some time and it is anyone’s guess how much rain we will see so it is essential to maintain irrigation until regular rains arrive. If rainfall is not consistent, keep the soil moist to protect the crop from variable temperature or drought stress.
- For both seed starts and nursery plants, make sure you have the right place for it and that you plant it so it has the best chance to succeed. That includes correct planting depth and plant spacing.
- The weather may be variable, but your attention to the garden should not be. Every day or so take some time to cruise your garden. It is much easier to deal with disease or insect pests earlier than when they have had a chance to get well established.
- Remember to keep a diary of what you planted and note how it performed so you can improve your edible garden for the next year.
Original article by Dot Zanotti Ingles (9/7/16) for the Marin Independent Journal
Edited for MMG public website by Kathryn Parkinson 7/24/18
Photos courtesy of sacmg.ucanr.edu