In the coastal West, a winter vegetable garden is not only possible, but ridiculously easy. Yet, in the community garden I belong to, many plots go unplanted during the winter, as if they were soon to be covered with a blanket of snow. What a missed opportunity! Compared to the summer garden, with its vast armies of insects and inevitable diseases and the constant watering and weeding, a winter vegetable garden is a snap.
In winter there are virtually no pests and no diseases. After a summer spent battling wilts and viruses, mildew and rust, the winter garden is like a vacation. Lean back in your chair and sip tea while you watch the rains water the garden. You don't need to fertilize winter vegetables as they grow, and because none of them get very big, they take up less space. Winter weeds are wimps, so you can weed with a hoe instead of a spade.
The only problem you'll encounter is lack of light as the days grow shorter and working in the garden becomes nearly impossible except on weekends. But by then there is little to do anyway. In summer, I have to get to the community garden every few days to water and weed. In winter, the garden can care for itself for weeks. Even if it doesn't rain (a distinct possibility in California), the sun is so low and mellow that the soil stays moist for days, even weeks, after a watering.
So, at the end of summer, when the last sickly tomato calls it quits, don't pack those tomato cages away -- plant peas at their bases. Cauliflower and broccoli should follow closely on the heels of corn and squash, and carrots and beets should be lined up like Christmas trees on a lot, interplanted with rows of crisp spinach and lettuce.
Though I sow something almost every week in winter, I begin in August, a seemingly unlikely time to be planting anything in southern California. But this is the first opportunity to sow cole crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, the weird sputnik-shaped kohlrabi, and especially brussels sprouts, which take a long time to mature. In August's heat and humidity, the seedlings come up like rockets off a launching pad.
What winter vegetables need to mature is cool weather. As youngsters, they can even handle the heat of California's sizzling San Bernardino and Imperial valleys. But when heads are forming, they need cool weather. Otherwise they'll likely make blossoms but not form heads. Even root crops get crisper in the cool soil.
There's enough time to get in two or more crops of most winter vegetables, so I sow seed again in late October, December, even in February. Though I'm feeding three vegetarian teenagers, there can be too much of a good thing, so I try to spread the harvest out by planting a little now, a little later, and some more after that.
I learned this lesson years ago when working in Alan Chadwick's fabled bio-intensive garden in Santa Cruz, California. We ate what we grew, and one week we had only beets, and way too many of them, so we subsisted on beet soup, boiled and baked beets, beet juice, beet bread, and beet cake. In retrospect, such a diet seems barely one step up from a downed airman's diet of ants and grubs.
Gardening in the mild coastal strip of southern California (USDA Hardiness Zone 10), where the last frost was back in 1908 or something like that, I'm admittedly spoiled. I can plant during any week of the year. But if you want precise planting dates, check with your cooperative extension office. Be sure to experiment a little, though; I've found the typical planting dates to be quite conservative.
As the weather cools down, germination slows down, too, so take this into account when menu planning. Seeds will wait for just the right conditions, which may take quite a few days. The sun will shine brightly for a few days, the winds blow warm, and up they'll come.
If you want to speed things up, cover flats or beds with a row cover, such as Reemay or Agrofabric. Thes materials let in the sun and rain (or irrigations), and trap the heat. They also exclude pests such as white cabbage butterflies, and they'll even help keep slugs and snails at bay. Lay the fabric on loosely, tuck the edges into the soil, and the seedlings will simply push it up as they grow. You can leave it on, but I usually remove it after plants are a few inches tall so I can keep a better eye on weeds.
Winter vegetables will grow big and strong with only the fertilizer and soil amendment added at planting time. In well-prepared soil, dig or till in homemade compost with a little cottonseed meal, bloodmeal, bone meal, or other organic fertilizer before planting. They will carry everything through the season.
Many of the winter vegetables prefer sandy soil, so in heavy clay soils or if your vegetable beds aren't already a fluffy gourmet blend, add lots of organic amendments. In the West, most amendments are some mix of ground-up barks and sawdust. They decompose slowly, so unlike compost, they add little or nothing to the soil's fertility but make it more porous and manageable -- more like a sandy soil. Adding sand to your soil, however, is not a good idea.
With every rain, those winter weed seeds that have lain dormant through the summer or have somehow survived the composting process and were added when you were turning the beds will pop up. But unlike summer weeds, which are often perennial, persistent, and deep-rooted, winter's weeds are easy to simply scrape off with a whoosh of the hoe.
Just be aware that they're there, waiting. If you are going to sow seed directly in the ground, it's a good idea to water thoroughly several times after preparing the beds to bring up the weeds. Then carefully hoe them out (try not to uncover more in the process). Then sow.
Another way around weeds is to start everything in flats, move them into saved nursery sixpacks, then transplant into the garden. This way you can at least tell the weeds from the crops.
This is the preferred way of planting all of the cole crops, which have a nasty habit of developing a crook in their necks as seedlings. This makes for tipsy, lopsided cabbage and cauliflower later on, unless you bury the bend when transplanting. For sentry-straight plants, just plant them up to their first set of leaves -- similar to planting a tomato deeply.
To control cabbageworms on broccoli and other cole crops, I apply Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, a nonpoisonous biological control) as soon as I plant, and reapply a few days after every storm system passes through. Bt works best on young larvae, so don't wait until you see big holes in the leaves. On all the cole crops, make sure you have rid the garden (or nearly so) of slugs and especially snails, which relish these succulent vegetables.
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.