A Winter Vegetable Garden in Northern California

comments (3) June 15th, 2009

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The sweet rewards of winter gardening are worth the effort of stretching the season.
Cole crops such as cabbage and broccoli are the stars of the winter garden.
A floating row cover can protect your winter crops from frost damage.
The sweet rewards of winter gardening are worth the effort of stretching the season.Click To Enlarge

The sweet rewards of winter gardening are worth the effort of stretching the season.

Photo: Marc Vassallo

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For years, I had a May to September relationship with my garden. I would plant in spring, harvest in summer and fall, and do nothing during the winter months but wait and plan for spring again. Last year I decided to keep my garden growing year-round. I was motivated by my love of  broccoli, although I also wanted to grow other cool-weather crops that just couldn’t take the heat of the hot summer months: peas, spinach, cauliflower, and cabbage, as well as lettuce and other salad greens. I found that, given a good strategy, a winter garden is easier to manage than a summer garden, and I feasted on greens through the months when I usually long for the flavor of freshly harvested vegetables.

  The garden in fall
  In the author's northern California garden, drip irrigation keeps the warm-season vegetables growing through the hot dry fall.
   
  The garden in mid-fall
  In mid-fall, the garden shows promise for winter broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce, while the summer's strawberry plants (left foreground) and lingering tomatoes (trellised, in the background) grow on.
   
The garden in winter
  The garden at its winter peak is abundant. A lettuce bed is draped with floating row cover to protect it from a freeze.
 
 
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   Starting Seeds: Tips, Techniques, Equipment 

   
   
I am fortunate to garden in an area of northern California with an agreeable climate. Although we typically have several months of intense winter rains, it never snows, and only occasionally do we have a killing frost. The usual summer crops of corn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, and melons would never grow during the winter, but many other vegetables thrive in the cool, even cold, weather of October to April. Granted, my climate makes it fairly easy to grow vegetables year-round. Without hot beds and hoop houses, winter gardening is impossible in areas where temperatures routinely drop below 25°F. But kitchen gardeners in other regions can enjoy a longer growing season even if the mercury dips to freezing levels. What it takes is a bit of planning and some useful season extenders, like floating row covers, cold frames, or small, plastic-covered hoop tunnels.

Planning ahead is key
Forethought is essential to getting your winter garden off to a good start. Even though many vegetables will mature and keep well during cold weather, most need warm soil temperatures to germinate and grow to a sufficient size before cold weather sets in. Of course, you can start seedlings indoors and nurture them there until they need to be hardened off and transplanted out. If you want to start some vegetables from seed to transplant later, sow your seeds in August, when soil and air temperatures are conducive to germination and strong growth. Be prepared to transplant by Labor Day, so your seedlings can take advantage of Indian summer’s mild weather.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for when specific crops should be planted, but, in general, the earlier the better. Optimally, seeds should be started in late summer, but nursery seedlings transplanted in early fall will still do well.

Some plants, such as onions, leeks, and cole crops, take a while to become established. Plant these early in August. Peas, carrots, beets, spinach, and lettuce can be direct-seeded and planted in succession for an extended harvest, but start planting in early August. Start peas, carrots, and beets between August 1 and 15; direct seed spinach around August 1.

Prepping the soil
  Prepping the soil and setting up structures should be done before winter. In this case, the winter pea crop needed to be planted in the fall, when warmer soil conditions favored germination.
 
All of these dates are applicable to my gardening zone and will change depending on your zone and microclimate. It may make more sense to determine how many days until a crop can be harvested, then count back to estimate when to plant. For instance, carrots can be harvested approximately 60 days after planting. Count back from a November harvest to a late August sowing.

When choosing varieties, you can pick your favorites, as I did, with an eye to staggered harvest dates. Or, if you have colder temperatures than my region has, choose cold-tolerant or short-season varieties. In addition to determining when to start specific plants, you also need to have some of your garden beds emptied of the summer crops and the soil prepped and ready for the winter crops.

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posted in: winter garden

Comments (3)

franny97405 writes: Cluster your potted plants around your dryer vent for a boost of humidity and warmth! I used my resin picnic table for wind protection and have lots of tomatoes to show for it.
Posted: 10:52 am on September 14th
MaryMD writes: I do not live in Northern California. I live North of Seattle WA at 1600 feet in the North Cascades. We supposedly are Zone 5, but I figure I am more zone 3 (Can get into the 20's for a week or two, snows most winters, and rains the rest of the time.) We are in a narrow mountain valley, so the cold sinks down to us.

I have an unheated greenhouse and this year added a cold frame using a heavy, clear vinyl cover. I want to have greens all winter and plan to keep my cabbages under frost quilts and harvest them as I need them. Broccoli is growing, but has not set heads as of November 3. I would love to hear from others who have a less-friendly winter climate about what you have found is a successful approach. We are entering our second winter with this garden (it was a summer only garden before we moved her full-time)and the first where I have done serious winter gardening.

Mary
Posted: 12:42 pm on November 3rd
Mileap writes: I don't know what part of Northern California you're in, but I'm in Sonoma County!

Turned my old chicken coop into a garden, and voila...what a crop last year!

Right now, peas are growing, broccoli and cabbage...

I tried straw bale gardening...LOVE IT!

Any other helpful hints you care to share?

Mileap
Posted: 7:58 pm on January 26th
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