Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My Winter Garden

This Thursday, October 23, I've been invited to participate in the KKUP Old Time Farm & Garden Radio Show. Jim Maley, the shows host, is a volunteer with the Santa Clara County Master Gardener program and my chile pepper mentor. I volunteered with the Master Gardeners from 2001 until I moved to Monterey county in early 2007. One of the very first projects I helped with was a trial of various types of peppers. Jim, aka Dr. Pepper, was the leader of that project. I'm not sure how it happened, but some of my old MG cohorts, including Jim, somehow stumbled upon my blog and have been reading along. So it was such a pleasant surprise when not long ago Jim asked me to join him to chat about my garden and my blog for the first hour of the show to be followed by another hour talking chile peppers with a group of Master Gardeners. It sounded like too much fun to pass up. KKUP can be found at 91.5 on the FM dial and can be heard in the South Bay and most of the Monterey Bay area (unfortunately not where I live). The live broadcast starts at 10:00 a.m., sorry no streaming, but a recording will be available later.

One of the topics that Jim suggested we talk about is my winter garden so I thought I would write up a post to help jog my memory and to compliment the show. I really don't consider winter gardening to be one of my strengths, but here goes...

Oh, and I must add that the winter garden is not very photogenic, so don't expect any pretty pictures. The garden tends to look rather bleak in December after the first frost and before I get things cleaned out.

December 13, 2013

The days are decidedly shorter now, but because of the peculiar nature of ocean currents and prevailing winds in this part of the world October tends to be one of the warmest months of the year. It makes it difficult to think about the winter garden. But now it's actually too late to be planning and planting most of the winter garden, even in mild Zone 9b (average lows of 25 to 30ºF or -3.9 to -1.1ºC) where I can harvest something every month of the year. When winter arrives, generally with a blast of cold air from Alaska some time in December, growth in the garden slows to a crawl if not an absolute dead stop. The frost hardy winter crops must be well established before that icy blast hits or they won't produce much of anything before bolting in early spring. Fortunately, my garden doesn't have to endure very many arctic blasts, a downright freeze strikes generally only a couple of times, more often the garden is subjected to radiation frost which isn't quite so damaging.

I made a summary of my monthly harvests back to 2010 which was when I first started to keep detailed records of what my garden produces. It shows that I still have a lot to learn about winter gardening. The leanest months of the year have tended to be December through March. It never fails to amaze me that a month of harvests in winter doesn't come up to a week's total or indeed a day's total at the height of the season in August through October. I really don't want a glut of veggies in winter since I have lots of preserved vegetables to eat, but a bit more fresh stuff would be nice, particularly if I could harvest a wider variety of veggies.

   In Pounds

Annual Totals
You can see more detail HERE on the Harvests page.

My greatest difficulty in planning for winter harvests has been making room in the summer and fall garden for the vegetables that will produce in the winter. It has taken me a long time to figure out some proper rotations, successions, and space planning (still a work in progress). There have been many times when I've had seedlings that need to be set out in the garden and I've just wedged them into whatever space is available. I'm becoming a bit more disciplined about that now. This year I made sure to have space in one bed for the winter brassicas which must be sown in summer and set out in the garden by early fall at the latest.

Last winter this bed was about 2/3 alliums - onions, garlic, and shallots took up one end and most of one side of the bed. The rest of the bed was seed poppies, chamomile, and wheat. I think I planted the garlic and shallots in November (my record keeping fell apart a bit last fall) and the onions were planted on December 20. Late plantings like these are easy, they go in after the warm season vegetable plants have been tucked into the compost bin. These all occupied space in the winter garden but didn't provide any harvests. I started harvesting spring onions in March and green garlic in April, but the bulk of the mature garlic and onions weren't lifted until June. The rotational challenge with alliums is that you can't grow them in a spot where you want to grow your summer vegetables that need an earlier start such as tomatoes.

February 22, 2014

The spring onions, greens and poppies were finished in time for me to grow summer cauliflower and broccoli (possible here because June and July tend to be rather cool). The wheat was replaced with melons and snap beans. The melon patch is now occupied by celery and celeriac. When the garlic came out I put in a double trellis of dry beans which are now finished and if I hurry up I might be able to get some peas going in that space. The peas will need frost protection but with some attenion on my part and luck with the weather I might be able to get a very early spring harvest. I still need to fine tune these successions. After the onions came out that space sat empty for a few months until I set out new cauliflower seedlings just recently. Next year I think I may experiment with starting the fall/winter brassicas in two successions by sowing seeds in June and July and putting the starts in the garden a month apart. Perhaps I can extend the harvest a bit that way. The spaces where the onions and shallots grew were empty for a while this summer so that type of succession planting should be possible next year.

Let's take a look at the veggies that I hope to be harvesting this winter. It seems that I'm off to a good start with Romanesco broccoli and Tronchuda Beira (Portuguese cabbage/kale). I sowed seeds for these on July 19. When I start most of my brassicas I sow about a dozen seeds into a 4-inch pot. When the seedlings have developed a few true leaves I separate the seedlings, weeding out any weaklings, and pot them up individually into a 1-quart pots (repurposed yogurt containers) and allow them to grow on for a few weeks. When they are large enough to withstand the pests in the garden I plant out the best specimens, always keeping a few reserves just in case...

Tronchuda Beira (foreground) and Romanesco broccoli
These are Amazing Taste cauliflower (sorry for the bad photo, it's difficult with the longer shadows at this time of year), also started on July 19th. I think they're off to a good start also.

Lacinato kale is definitely going strong. It was seeded at the same time as the other fall/winter brassicas. This bunch is a bit munched by cabbage worms but it hasn't set them back much. Not too many aphids yet! That tends to be the biggest problem I have with kale, other than birds. Lacinato kale definitely has to be quite mature heading into winter, it grows quite slowly when the cold weather sets in and is quick to bolt in late winter.

These are Di Ciccio broccoli plants that I grew for late spring and summer harvests. They were still producing so many strong shoots when I sowed the fall/winter brassicas that I decided I didn't need replacement plants. They are still producing, albeit smaller shoots, but I also have a few pounds of frozen shoots so I don't regret my decision.

This is one of my goofs. I just could not get the celery and celeriac to grow. Last year I sowed seeds for them on July 23 and this year on August 1. The plants shown below just days ago are smaller than the plants last year on August 29.  Last year I started harvesting celery in December, this year, hmm, the plants are so small, poor things, they probably won't size up enough to provide much of a harvest before they bolt in the spring. But I had the plants and the space so I set them out anyway. Maybe they'll surprise me.

Monarch celeriac (left) Dorato d'Asti celery

One thing I decided not to grow for fall/winter harvests this year is cabbage. If I had sown seeds any time from July into early September I could have been harvesting both Napa and European type cabbages into winter. Beets are another vegetable that can be harvested into the winter if sown early enough. I'm thinking of trying to start some now since we are supposed to continue to enjoy warm weather for a while. Beet seeds sown directly into cold soil will probably fail to germinate, I know because I've tried. But I've learned that I can sow beets into paper pots and get them going indoors, then they can be set out into the garden where they will tolerate most anything that winter throws their way here. Oh, and let's not forget carrots, if the sow bugs hadn't decimated my late summer sowing of carrots I might have been pulling carrots this winter. I went ahead and sowed more carrots, but like the poor little celery and celeriac plants, they may never amount to much before I have to clear them out to make way for onions.

This year I devoted room in one bed for quick growing greens. The tunnels shown below are where I've been growing mostly salad and cutting greens plus beets and chard. This has been mostly cleaned out now, there's some lettuce and gai lan remaining in one tunnel.

The other tunnel has a bit of arugula and some baby kale remaining, both of which need to be cleaned out, and there's a few chard plants that are succumbing to powdery mildew.

But back in January I was able to start a variety of greens. I sowed seeds for a few varieties of spinach into paper pots on January 9 and got them going indoors. We had such a mild January this year that the spinach took off and I got to harvest the first round on February 27. I'm not sure that that would be possible in a "normal" colder and wetter year (what is "normal" these days?).  The unusually mild weather also allowed me to directly sow seeds in January for arugula, rapini, pac choi, Tokyo Bekana (a loose leaf napa cabbage), and mizuna which gave me a big jump on spring harvests.   You can see what was happening in my garden this past February on my February Garden Tour post.

I'm always willing to push the limits if I have the seeds, space, and time to do the work. So I'll be further testing the limits of the growing season here this fall, I've got chard, spinach, and lettuce starts that I will be setting out into these tunnels in the next few weeks. I'm going to directly sow seeds for rapini, mache, and radishes there as well. And I'm going to try to get some beets going, starting them in paper pots and then setting them out when they have a couple of true leaves.

So you may be wondering why I use the tunnels. The only way that I can grow a crop of tender greens, at least of late, is to grow them under cover otherwise the birds just devour them, that's the primary reason for the tunnels. But they are also handy if frost is predicted, it's easy to add a layer of row cover or frost cloth to the tunnels to provide overnight protection.

There's one more significant resident of the winter garden, favas! Dave would be sorely disappointed if I didn't grow favas every year. I've figured out a great rotation for planting favas. When my tomatoes are done and gone from the garden I sow the fava seeds inside the tomato cages. The birds love to dig up fava seedlings and can peck the foliage of the growing plants into oblivion. The tomato cages are a convenient support for bird netting and then as the plants grow and get heavy with beans the cages prevent the plants from flopping all over the place. The only minor disadvantage to using the cages is that it can be a little difficult to harvest the beans, but it's not as bad as having to wade through a bunch of flopped over plants. My very well drained raised beds makes it possible for me to sow fava seeds even in the coldest wettest time of the year with minimal danger of having the seeds rot in wet soil. That gives me a wide range of planting dates but I generally sow them sometime in November or December. They don't produce beans until spring, but if the plants are mature enough I harvest tender young leaves to eat as salad greens or to cook like spinach.

February 22, 2014


  1. I'm jealous of your winter garden. Winter has definitely been my favorite season to garden here at my Southern California home--the greens taste so good, and I don't have to think about watering. But, now that my garden is shut down, I don't have some of my favorite vegetables to look forward to! I'll dream through your wonderful garden in the meantime.

  2. It is nice to see what you have going on in your fall/winter garden. And the radio show sounds like a lot of fun, as well as being informative. I mean, talking peppers with some fellow fans - how cool is that?

    It is ironic, I have a friend and MG whose name is Jim. He too is known as the 'pepper guy' around here and always donated lots of different pepper plants for the annual MG plant sale. He helped start my experiments with growing peppers, and you have certainly thrown more fuel on the fire (so to speak)!

  3. You have more stuff in your Winter garden than most people have in their Summer gardens. It's good to see someone writing realistically about the practicalities of small-scale veg-growing. So many people expect so much when they are prepared to put in so little effort - or planning!

  4. I hope you had fun doing the radio show this morning! Your winter garden is just fabulous - and I see from the numbers you had your best season ever this past winter. I struggled with timing all summer. Although it is way too cold here to have a winter garden, it's the fall crops that have me scratching my head wondering how to get them in the ground early enough to produce a decent crop when the temps start to dip - finding an empty spot in mid-summer is challenging! Some of this years fall crops did ok but others just didn't get in the ground early enough to produce. It's all about lots of trial and error, I suppose!

  5. Oh, I have garden envy! Your garden is gorgeous and I LOVE your choice of plant material and your tip for planting!


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