Growing edibles for fall, winter: start now

  • Written by Bill Thorness Author, Cool Season Gardener Courtesy of Molbak’s Garden+Home

Want to serve food from your garden at holiday dinners this year? It’s possible, if you get started now.

As you eye the tomato patch and hope for a good harvest, you could also be planning what will go next into that garden bed. When other summer crops come out, tasty cool-season crops can go in. They’ll use our gentle fall climate to get growing.

•    Short-seasoned crops like leafy greens will be ready for harvest before the leaves fall.
•    Longer-season crops — those that have to make big edible roots or lots of vegetation and edible buds, like broccoli — will come ripe just as winter hits.
•    “Overwintered” crops will sprout now but stay small through our short, mild winter. They won’t mind the chilly rains, but might need a little protection from harsher winter. Then they’ll take off in early spring and give you something to eat from your garden before next summer’s vegetables have even sprouted.

Here’s how to get started now and grow successfully.

First, find some clear garden space after harvesting summer veggies. If you grew plants that used a lot of fertilizer, like potatoes, broccoli or cauliflower, you might want to add a complete organic fertilizer (follow application rate instructions on the box). Let the fertilizer sit in the soil for a week or so before planting, and pull up any weeds that appear.

Next, decide what you want to eat this fall. In late August and into September, you can still plant many edible crops:
•    Leafy greens like arugula, many Asian salad greens, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach and Swiss chard
•    Root crops like beets, carrots, radishes and turnips
•    Members of the brassica family, like broccoli, cabbage, collards and kale

You can even plant snow peas! Impress your friends with a tasty batch of crisp peas, a crop most people only think of as a spring vegetable.

If you plant leafy greens around Labor Day, you’ll be harvesting most of them in the last part of October. But here’s a good trick: Plant a little seed every few days through the first three weeks of September, in a place where you can cover the plants with a cloche (a plastic-covered hoop house) later in fall. By doing that, you’ll be able to harvest salads from the garden all the way to Thanksgiving.

Some other fall-planted crops will benefit from being protected under a cloche as winter approaches. Beets, for instance, will remain much nicer into winter under a cloche.

Some overwintering crops will also benefit from a cover. Sprouting broccoli, carrots and peas will survive as tiny starts and shoot up in early spring. They might need an extra blanket thrown over the cloche if we have an icy or snowy night in mid-winter, but take it off as soon as the weather warms to seasonal norms.

Finally, if all this is a bit too much trouble, here are two easy plants to try for this winter: fava beans and garlic. Favas can be planted as late as Halloween and still get big enough to survive the winter. Garlic is also planted around that spooky holiday, and will sprout in January and be ready for harvest in June. Both those crops require very little care, and — like many winter vegetables — produce tasty edible rewards.

Bill Thorness is the author of “Cool Season Gardener: Extend the Harvest, Plan Ahead, and Grow Vegetables Year Round.” He has been growing food in Seattle since the mid-1980s.

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