A Winter Vegetable Garden in Northern California

comments (10) 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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Seeing the garden through
Maintaining my winter garden was remarkably easy. I had to water regularly during August, September, and October, but once temperatures cooled off and the winter rains came, I didn’t water at all. Weeds don’t grow fast in fall and winter; most of my weeds were wild grasses, which I just cut short with grass clippers. It’s actually best not to pull weeds, because when the soil is soggy, you risk harming your vegetables’ root systems. And the roots of the weeds keep the soil in your raised beds from washing away.

Insects aren’t generally a problem in colder weather, and although snails and slugs can proliferate, I had enough vegetables planted in my garden to ensure there was plenty left over for me. All of my crops were hardy enough to withstand frost, except for my lettuces and salad greens. Whenever frost was forecast, I covered that bed with a floating row cover.

The garden in winter
  Through the winter, row covers keep cold-hardy crops alive during the winter, which is rainy and cool but not prohibitively cold.
In other parts of the country, weather may be capricious. Have floating row covers ready to protect plants from sudden freezes. Quick changes in temperature are more damaging to plants than gradual changes.

In retrospect, my winter garden took much less effort than my usual summer garden. Once planted, my vegetables seemed to grow well by themselves with little intervention. The major effort on my part was venturing out into the rain to harvest whatever I felt like eating or cooking. But it was well worth it: fresh steamed broccoli and cauliflower, homemade coleslaw, sweet garden peas, borscht made with my own cabbage, beets, and carrots, and of course, incomparable salads. If only I could grow tomatoes in winter to top them off.

Plant bare beds with a cover crop
My winter garden was about a quarter the size of my summer garden, and I wanted to put that open space to good use. So I planted a green manure crop between the winter beds and the perimeter fences and in a few of the beds I wasn’t using. I used a mix from my local nursery consisting of 50 percent bell beans, 30 percent Austrian field peas, and 20 percent common vetch. All are legumes, which fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil and add organic matter when turned under. The field peas cover the ground, while the vetch climbs up the taller bell beans.

For your own garden, you’ll want to seek local advice about the best cover crops or mixes for your area. Till or rake open areas and empty beds to about 2 inches deep, then broadcast the seed and rake in to cover. There’s no need to water if you plant just before the fall rains.

Three to four weeks before you plant your summer crops, chop down the cover crop, either with a machete or a mulching mower, and till it into the soil. This will allow the organic matter to begin rotting and releasing nutrients for your crop. Non-legumes such as barley, rye, and oats can also be planted as a winter cover crop; they won’t provide as much nitrogen as legumes, but they will add large amounts of organic matter and help choke out weeds.
Cover crop seeds Cover crop seeds
A handful of cover crop seeds (left) is an investment in your garden's future. A cover crop (right) minimizes soil erosion and becomes a source of nitrogen for the beds come spring.

by James Kerr
October 2000
from issue #29

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posted in: winter garden

Comments (10)

KlaasNelen writes: nice idea.
Posted: 1:11 am on November 8th
Onzaleelvir writes: Great ideal!
Posted: 3:06 am on September 15th
Eritacey writes: I love to grow green vegetables!
Posted: 4:27 am on August 11th
Eritacey writes: I love to grow green vegetables!
Posted: 4:27 am on August 11th
VaneelaCharon writes: Interesting!!
Posted: 1:59 am on May 25th
ParrlaSonders writes: I love to growing plants!!!
Posted: 4:18 am on January 30th
Posted: 12:57 pm on September 13th
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.

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?

Posted: 7:58 pm on January 26th
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