Gardeners here in the North State are lucky enough to be able to grow vegetables all year-round. The secret to a successful fall/winter or cool season vegetable garden is the timing. August and September is when our summer gardens are in full swing; tomatoes are abundant, winter squash is ripening and you can’t pick your zucchini’s fast enough! Winter is the furthest thing from our minds, but it is time to start your cool season vegetable garden.
Seeds need warmth to germinate and seedlings & starts need nice warm soil to establish a healthy root system before the first frost arrives near the end of October. The average first and last frost dates here in Shasta County are October 15th and April 15th. Vegetables grown during this period need to be established enough to survive the cold weather and shorter day length.
Preparing Your Site
Choose a south-facing area of your garden that gets at least 4-6 hours or more of direct sunlight per day. Keep in mind that the sun will be lower in the sky and days shorter during the winter months. If you have a summer garden, you may have to clear out some of your warm season crops to make room for your winter veggies.
Due to the wet weather, good drainage is essential and raised beds are best. If your soil doesn’t drain well, amend it with good organic matter.
Make sure your winter garden is easily accessible. You don’t want to be knee-deep in mud getting to your garden to harvest your crops. Amend your soil with a good organic soil builder like our “Bumper Crop” or “Paydirt”. Spread a 2-3” inch layer over the surface of the existing bed and work it into the soil to a depth of 6-8”inches and water in well.
Planting year-round requires close attention to soil fertility, or your garden won’t flourish.
When planting by seed, start as early in August as possible. When purchasing starter plants from the nursery, planting late August through September is just fine. The goal is to get your plants established before the cold weather hits. Be sure to use a starter fertilizer like E.B. Stone’s “Sure Start” or Master Nursery’s “Master Start” to help your plants develop a strong root system.
Some veggies do better when direct-seeded in the garden such as your root vegetables; beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes and turnips. Other veggies can be started either by direct-seeding or transplants.
If it’s hot and sunny when you plant, your young starts will need extra care. Do not allow seedlings to dry-out excessively. New transplants may also benefit from frequent light watering until they develop new roots. You may need to water seeds and newly sprouted seedlings and starts twice a day depending on the weather. Temporarily shade your new starts to keep the soil moist and protect young plants from the sun. You might want to use a shade cloth or do something as simple as strategically placing a chair over them.
Most of your leafy green veggies will over-winter and you can harvest them in different stages of growth. Collards, Lettuce, Kale, Mustard greens, Swiss chard and Spinach will give you delicious salad greens for months. Harvest the outer leaves with scissors and your plants will grow new leaves and thrive on their frequent “haircuts”.
PREPARE FOR WINTER WEATHER
The first of October is an excellent time to begin preparing the vegetable garden for the normal cold winter weather ahead. You should have some permeable frost cloth on hand; we carry DeWitt’s N-Sulate, to protect plants from sudden freezes. Frost cloth will last for many seasons and can be placed directly on your plants and clipped on with clothes pins or spread over hoops in your veggie beds to create an insulated hoop house.
Cold frames and hoop houses are like mini greenhouses which keep the inside environment slightly warmer than the surrounding air and protect your plants from frost, cold wind and rain. You can directly plant in them or use them to harden off your new transplants. You can use pvc pipe and either heavy plastic or frost cloth as the shell or even straw bales with old windows, just keep an eye on the weather becoming too hot and cooking your plants; allow for ventilation on hot days.
Take advantage of the power of the sun and plant next to a south facing solid fence or wall, the radiant heat from these structures can increase the temperature around your bed by 10-15 degrees.
Raised beds are great for winter gardens because the soil inside the structure stays warm longer in the fall and will warm up earlier in the spring.
Mulching serves many purposes in the winter garden; during heavy rainstorms it helps prevent the soil from eroding away and it insulates the plants with a blanket of protection over their root systems. The most common types of mulch used are straw, pine straw, peat moss, bark, sawdust and shredded newspapers.
Rotation of Crops
Do not plant the same crops in the same location as the previous year and don’t plant crops from the same family in the same location, this includes summer crops too. The soil will weaken because of the loss of the same nutrients being used, and if you had problems with insects and diseases, they will be attracted back to that same location. A three or four year rotation schedule is best, mix it up, and move it around, keep those insects and diseases guessing.
Rebuilding Your Soil
Since winter crops are more compact than summer crops, you will most likely be using less garden space. Now is the time to rebuild the soil in the unplanted garden area that will be resting all winter. Remove all dead debris, weeds and plants that will not over-winter and are no longer producing. Add a 3” layer of compost or soil amendment, such as Master Nursery’s Bumper Crop or Paydirt. You can either stop here, or add a few more layers of straw, manure or leaves; layer some nice organic matter to your beds to slowly break-down over the winter months (do not add ashes from your fireplace, too much is not good for your soil). If you like, add some earthworms to the amended areas to help break down the organic matter and add additional nutrients. These little caretakers will work all winter to turn your organic matter into beautiful compost ready for planting in the spring.
A cover crop is what you plant in your empty garden beds to prevent erosion and compaction from wind and rain, and build-up the soil with essential minerals and nutrients plus organic materials in the off-season. Cover crops or “Green Manure” is usually a mix of legumes (which fixes nitrogen to the soil) or can be some sort of cereal or grain crop. These plants have the benefit of a strong root system which also helps to loosen and aerate the soil. We carry a cover crop mix called; Green Manure Cover Crop, which is a mixture of Bell beans, Austrian field peas and Vetch and is sold by the pound. In addition to the Green manure, other common cover crops are; Clover, Field Peas & oats mix and Buckwheat. Plant cover crops in late August or September to grow throughout the winter, then in early spring, chop the plants down, let dry and mix into your soil.
Enjoying Your Winter Garden
Winter gardens are definitely much easier to maintain than summer gardens. By the end of October, watering is much less frequent because of the cooler weather, and once the rains start, you won’t have to water at all! Keep in mind that winter veggies can also suffer from too little water. If a freeze is forecast, make sure your plants are well hydrated and protected if necessary. Insects are usually not a problem and weeds are slow to grow, and those that do are easy to pull out.
The best part of your winter garden is the delicious vegetables and greens that you can grow! Forget the iceberg lettuce, once you begin growing your own greens, you won’t settle for plain lettuce again.
Use a little iceberg as the base if you like, but add wonderful leaf lettuces, romaine, mustard greens, beet tops, collards, green onions and kale; be creative, pick a little of everything, winter greens are good for you. They each have their distinctive flavors; mustard greens have a spicy almost wasabi flavor and Sorrel has a sharp lemon taste. With a wonderful mix of greens from your garden, you won’t even need to add salad dressing!
Have fun, grow a little of everything, try something new. There is a whole new world of veggies out there and with a little planning you will be looking forward to your cool season garden even more than your summer one!