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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

A Winter Vegetable Garden (page 4 of 5)

by Robert Smaus

My Winter Garden Favorites

Despite the bad rap given broccoli by a former president, it is probably my favorite winter vegetable. Tossed in salads, stir-fried, sitting in butter, or slathered with mayonnaise, it is plain delicious. It is also easy to grow.

This year I got anxious and planted my first seeds on August 8, and the seeds were up on the 11th, so eager to grow that they split and shoved aside the potting soil in the flat like a 7.0 temblor. It takes about six weeks and one more move into old nursery sixpacks before they'll be ready to transplant into the garden. This is one of the cole crops that must be planted deeper in the soil so the bend in the stem is covered. I've liked every variety I've tried but especially 'Early Dividend', which seems a tad faster to form heads, yet still has plenty of side shoots later. Chalk this up for broccoli: It produces over a long period. Still, I make several plantings through the season.

My wife prefers cauliflower and has learned to make cauliflower quiche, soups, and sundry other treats because it comes in all at once (no side shoots for later) and because we've been growing a variety named 'Stardust', which makes Alaska-sized heads that don't fit in the plastic market bags we use to tote vegetables home from the garden.

In our climate, the heads are snow white and over a foot across and, for those who haven't grown cauliflower for a while, you no longer need to tie the leaves over the heads to keep them white. At first, the inner leaves clasp the heads and protect them from the sun, but even after they burst out, they yellow only slightly. Plant only a couple of transplants at a time so you don't get overwhelmed.

My wife also loves cabbage, and I grow a variety named 'Fast Ball' that is quick and small enough (one meal's worth) to actually fit in the fridge. My oldest son adores brussels sprouts so we always put in a few plants. They take the longest of all to mature, so we plant early, but the plants also produce for a long time. At the community garden people have been picking from plants as tall as the Eiffel Tower for years, or so it seems. Kohlrabi is cute, but has no fans in this family.

But spinach does! Here's something I can't seem to plant enough of and it only grows in cool weather, bolting to seed at the slightest hint of heat. You can cut it and it regrows, so it lasts a few weeks, but I still plant an 8-foot row every time, and make several sowings through the winter.

In our home garden, we have several raised beds for vegetables and I grow the spinach so we can cut it without having to venture up to the community garden (saving those plots for large crops or those that need infrequent harvesting). We also grow lettuce in these raised beds. In coastal southern California, lettuce is a year-round crop, but in winter it is exceptionally crisp and flavorful.

We grow some as cut-and-come-again kinds and others to mature for harvest all at once. All are delicious, but my favorite is the French variety 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons', often translated as simply 'Four Seasons'. It is, however, a "marvel" and easily grows in all our seasons. In winter, it makes soft, buttery heads that melt in your mouth; at other times, it behaves more like a red leaf lettuce. Not all vegetables can be called beautiful, but this one is, with crinkly leaves that turn a dark mahogany red with soft green mottling.

We also grow various mesclun mixes. It is particularly important to germinate all the weed seeds before sowing the mesclun, because many of the greens in this mix look like weeds and are indeed closely related. We plant in little patches about 3 feet by 3 feet, make two harvests with the scissors (when plants are about 4 inches tall), then start over. Leave some of these greens in the garden a tad too long and they become bitter, and not a touch but a truckload.

In southern California, winter is just about the only time you can grow really crunchy head lettuces, including the crisphead types called 'Iceberg'. Plant these early in winter to avoid spring's heat.

Beets and carrots are two root crops that do well in winter, and each year I make several sowings of each. I have yet to settle on a favorite beet, liking them all, but my favorite carrot, though by a nose, is another French variety, the heirloom 'Touchon'. It's just the right size for my raised beds, being about 6 to 8 inches long at maturity, and tasty and easy to germinate.

I no longer plant beets or carrots in rows but in bands about a foot wide and I seldom plant more than a few feet of "band" at a time, preferring to keep new crops coming by sowing new swaths every month. I thin seedlings out to about 2 inches apart. They seem happier in a crowd.

Traditional green peas and edible-pod peas also grow only in winter in our part of the West, and these get trained up summer's bean poles and onto tomato cages, where they do double duty feeding my family and the soil (bacteria on their roots make nitrogen available).

My winter garden wouldn't be complete without onions, and especially garlic. Cloves planted in fall or winter make big bulbs by late spring. Fresh, they are delicious, and braided, they last through most of summer, even with a wife who can work garlic into just about every recipe short of dessert.

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