The light has begun to change in the mornings, softer and hazier and much later rising. The crispness in the air signals the inevitable. Summer is drawing to a close.
Perhaps it is a throw back to my school days, but for me, September still is a time of new beginnings. And so it is in my garden. It has been a long, hot, dry summer. My tomatoes have produced well over 200 pounds of glorious fruit that has nearly overwhelmed me and my canning abilities. This weekend I began to ceremoniously chop them down, and feed them to the finance and his lawn mower become wood-chipper. I have fed them, they have fed me, and now they will feed the soil they came from.
In their place I have begun to sow my winter garden.
Here on the coast, our winters are usually quite mild, and with a bit of protection we can grow edibles more or less year round.
If you are going to grow veg in the winter I think it is important to be especially kind to your soil. After all, it’s not going to get the hibernation it needs after working so hard all summer. For myself, I shoveled a dozen bucketfuls from the compost to spread on my patch, thick with worms. However, the great thing about winter gardening is you don’t actually need a plot of earth to do it. A sheltered patio is even more conducive to winter gardening. Keep your pots from drying out and out of the wind, cover them with clear plastic as necessary and any apartment dweller can also enjoy fresh greens all winter long.
So what do you grow? There are a ton of choices for winter gardening. This year I am growing a variety of veg, many of which I’ve never grown before and some of which I’ve never even heard of.
I have read that onions are persnickety about the time of year they’re sown, but we found a half dozen bags of onion sets on sale for a dollar each and figured, what’s the harm? As you can see they’ve sprouted with little effort. I may only have cocktail onions by the end of it, but that is fine by me.
Some of mine are plants that have been going all summer long and will continue right into the dead of winter. Kale and brussel sprouts are two that actually will taste even better after a frost, and they add visual drama to the winter garden. I can’t wait to photograph the black tuscan kale covered in snow! Other veg from the brassica / cole family will be equally happy. Gorgeous cabbages, creamy cauliflower and stately broccoli all enjoy cooler weather.
All kinds of root vegetables are an easy choice any time of year, but particularly in winter. They lend themselves to winter eating that just cries out for hearty bowls of soup and stew. We are growing turnips, parsnips,rutabagas, beets, carrots and radishes. Some of these, like beets, are equally lovely on top as below. Baby beet greens are a sweet, nutritious addition to salads and stir fries. Plant your row, and as you thin it out, rather than throwing leaves away, toss them in your bowl! Easy peasy.
But I think the best part of winter gardening is the greens. Lettuce, spinach and lots of other greens don’t love the heat, having a tendency to run straight to seed as soon as the weather turns warm. Consistently cool weather keeps that drive in check. In addition to regular lettuce and spinach, there are many different asian greens that can be grown to full size or eaten as a baby greens mix. Most of these will do best if you can offer them the slightest protection. A cloche, cold-frame or plastic covering will make a huge difference. We’re also trying an old fashioned green called corn salad that requires no protection.
Swiss chard is another solid standby for the winter garden. It’s a hardy, versatile green and is great for a novice gardener. It grows quickly and reliably and has a million uses in the kitchen. We use it in place of spinach in the summer because it is much slower to bolt, and it works well in winter favorites like lasagna. A bonus – it comes in a variety of colours ranging from deep luxurious red to day-glow yellow. It brightens up both the winter garden and the plate.
So when to plant? You want your veg to be heading into the worst of winter as teenagers. Some vegetables are for winter harvest – like the greens, but some, like garlic, overwinter – (which is something else entirely and will be the subject of a post of it’s own). For best results you’ll want to do what’s called “succession planting” basically plant a row every week or few days. This way you will be able to stager your harvest and won’t be over-run by a ton of turnips all at once. If you are new to gardening, or aren’t as keen on canning and preserving as we are – look for varieties that will hold well in the garden. (Read – leave the carrot in the ground till you’re ready to eat ’em.) It’s helpful to get your hands on a planting chart until you build your confidence. Most seed companies will have some sort of pamphlet with this essential information. If you can’t find a pamphlet, look at the number of days to harvest on the seed packet and count backwards from your first frost date. In our north-west climate, most winter veg can be sown from mid-July to September. We love Westcoast Seeds for their winter gardening information: http://www.westcoastseeds.com.