January 02, 2010
Back in August, I had a chat with my friend Marie about year-round vegetable gardening. As we talked, we surveyed her backyard plot and marveled at the abundance of her summer crops. Serpentine vines strained against the weight of fat beefsteak tomatoes. Marie's pepper plants were waist high and heavy with fruit, and a single summer squash had grown large enough to dominate the corner of the garden. Basil threatened to trip me at every step.
Marie had been wildly successful with her summer vegetable garden, and now she was considering extending her edible gardening practice into the fall. I was thrilled and offered to help her choose her fall crops. Our conversation went something like this:
Marie: "Jen, what can I grow this fall and winter?"
Jennifer: "Think about the stuff you like to eat in the colder seasons. I usually grow things like broccoli, chard, spinach and bok choy."
Marie: "Yeah. I really want to grow some winter squash."
At this point, the conversation took a bit of an uncomfortable turn.
Jennifer: "Ummm, Marie, you don't plant winter squash in the winter. I guess you were confused by the name. You actually plant winter squash in your garden around the same time you plant your summer squash, but it takes longer to develop. You harvest it early in the fall and then store it for winter use. That's why it is called winter squash."
The look on Marie's face went from optimistic to completely crestfallen.
Marie: "Ughh! Why does everything about gardening have to be so complicated?"
Poor Marie. The lesson she learned that day was that she needed to go back to the drawing board and rethink her expectations for her autumn harvest. For me, the lesson I learn and forget every year is when to call it quits for the summer growing season.
The toughest part of year-round gardening for me is managing the transitions between seasons, especially when the prior growing season's plants are still doing well. Year after year, the biggest challenge is managing space. Each spring I give in to the temptation to plant every square inch of my garden beds with summer crops such as tomatoes, squash and pole beans, but then I find myself wringing my hands over the lack of bare soil in late summer when I want to plant my snow peas.
This year the eggplant and peppers clouded my better judgment. I grew six varieties of eggplant both Italian and Asian, and a half a dozen types of sweet and hot peppers.
Since this was my first experience growing both crops from seed, I grew a wide variety in case one or more of them didn't do well. I was lucky with all but one of the eggplant varieties, so I harvested both peppers and eggplants all summer and throughout autumn.
The plants bloomed and fruited repeatedly and I couldn't bring myself to pull them up. I harvested the last of my poblano peppers and Farmer's Long eggplants on Dec. 5, but my reluctance to call it quits earlier came at a price.
Although I enjoyed my late-harvests, by October the plants were no longer cranking out fast-growing fruits in abundance, but only one or two a plant. Ripening slowed as the weather turned colder. And while I maximized the growing season for the plants, in reality, most of the volume of my harvest for the season had been picked by summer's end. The peppers and eggplant had monopolized a lot of space that could have supported thriving autumn crops of cauliflower, onions or Brussels sprouts.
Want to break out of the summer-only way of thinking about edible gardens? Here are a few tips:
- Educate yourself about what vegetables to plant in spring, summer and fall. If you're a farmers market shopper, consider each trip to the market an opportunity to learn.
Take note of what is available from month to month to get a feel for the seasonality of our local vegetables. Use your observations to plan for next year's crops in your own garden.
- Cultivate a relationship with a favorite local nursery and shop often to see which vegetable starts are available in six packs from month to month. If you don't find starts for a vegetable you want to grow, ask one of the nursery associates when they expect to have it in stock. Your timing might just be off a week or two.
- Seed your own. Growing from seed gives you the opportunity to watch and learn a plant's growth cycle from germination to harvest. Start with easy to grow vegetables such as lettuce, chard and radishes. All three do well in both cool and warm months.
- If planting and harvesting a high volume of produce year-round is important to you and you have space limitations, be vigilant about pulling up plants that have slowed production and are past their prime.
- Grow a wide variety of long-lived herbs and plant at least one fruit tree. Sometimes life's other commitments prevent me from executing all of the grand plans I make for my kitchen garden.
Even during periods of neglect, thanks to a mature lemon tree, a proliferation of rosemary shrubs and lots of self-seeding parsley, I can harvest something out of my garden on just about any day of the year.