Winter gardening planting

Starting the Winter Garden

One of the simplest ways to keep the garden producing at full volume is to make sure it is full of growing crops at all times. After you harvest the first of the summer crops, you will often have time to plant more of them (and should), but you should also start thinking about the fall and winter garden. Winter crops need to do most of their growth before cold weather and short days arrive and slow them down. The almost mature plants will then continue to grow slowly (if the winter is mild), or sit in the garden in an edible state until harvested (if the winter is cold).

Planning the winter garden starts with choosing suitable hardy crops, which would include Asian Greens, Beet, Broccoli, Brussels Sprout, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Celery, Chard, Collards, Chicory, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leek, Lettuce, Parsnip, Rutabaga, Spinach, Turnip and more. You also have to choose the right varieties for winter growing, as there can be considerable variation within a crop. You want cultivars bred to tolerate cold temperatures and short day length.

The right time to start your winter crops depends upon where you live, but generally you can start planting the slower maturing crops, such as leeks, parsnips, celery and Brussel sprouts in mid-summer (July). Transplants of broccoli and cabbage can be started in August for planting in the garden through September. Quicker maturing vegetables, such as turnips and kohlrabi may be planted through mid-October. Generally if you’re your garden isn’t super fertile it’s best to start all of these earlier rather than later. If plants are too small when winter arrives they will just sit in the garden looking pathetic and embarrassing. When spring comes they will resume growing for a week or two and then bolt.

When you open up large areas of bed by harvesting, it makes sense to use the first of them for direct sown crops such as carrot or parsnip that can’t be grown from transplants. At this time of year the bare soil of a seed bed will dry out very quickly, so it’s a good idea to cover it with shade cloth. This keeps it cooler and moister and reduces the need for watering. I like to go even further and cover slow germinating crops like carrot or parsnip with a sheet of cardboard or plywood until just before I expect germination to occur (this also keeps weeds down). Cool weather crops often don’t germinate well at high temperatures, so if a period of cool weather is forecast I try and take advantage of it and get sowing.

Where possible I like to grow winter crops as transplants, as I can get them growing while the garden beds are still occupied; no need to wait for vacant space. You can start the transplants in the greenhouse if it’s not too hot (some cool weather crops won’t germinate if the temperature is too high), but it is usually warm enough to start them outside too. You can simply grow them in flats on a table covered in bird netting, though they will need frequent watering, as containers dry out rapidly. You could also use a specially designated nursery bed, which is simply an area of bed with good soil and covered with bird netting.

For those of us in the milder parts of the country the winter garden is often just as important as the summer garden and this is a crucial time of year. If you miss the window for getting your plants established, you won’t have a winter garden.

Three Favorite Tools

My Three Favorite Tools

When asked to describe my three favorite tools I initially thought about which tools couldn’t I do without, but that would depend on what I am doing. I have a favorite tool for each task (watering, making compost, weeding, digging) and each task is an essential step in growing vegetables. So instead I thought about the tools I most enjoy using and consider to be best suited to their purpose. This was an easy choice as I have several tools that I wouldn’t want to be without. Even after many years of using them, I am still impressed by how well they work.

Hand Hoe

This hand held little hoe is the ultimate tool for close up weeding. It can scrape over the soil surface and chop down small weeds without disturbing the soil surface (which would bring up more weed seeds to germinate). It is small and maneuverable enough to get between closely spaced plants without damaging them, but much quicker than hand weeding. It makes weeding into a pleasurable and brief activity.

Haws Watering Can

With its long spout and brace that doubles as a carrying handle, this symbol of gardening tradition is the ultimate watering can. It’s unique design was first patented in 1886 and has been made for well over 100 years without significant changes because it is perfect. It has an interchangeable rose that puts out a perfect upturned spray, it is durable (I’ve had mine for almost 20 years), comfortable, and so well balanced I can use it with one hand. Perfection doesn’t come cheap, with the 2 gallon can costing around $144. However if you amortize that over 25 years it works out to less than $6.00 a year, which makes it sound like a bargain. There is also a cheaper plastic version that works pretty well, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

T Handle Compost Fork

I bought this Bulldog (now Clarington Forge) tool at Smith and Hawken when it was still primarily a tool company, rather than a brand. It is designed specifically for turning compost and manure and with its wide head and five solid forged tines it works better than anything else I have ever tried (I imagine someone must have done extensive research to find the best way to shovel shit). Even the T handle is perfect, providing a better grip and more maneuverability than a straight handle.