Fall and Winter Veggies – Starting Now!
I have a degree in Agriculture and thus far have been completely unable to grow watermelon radishes. It’s so embarrassing. Just in case you are not familiar with watermelon radishes they are a radish with a rosy pink centre surrounded by a thin outer layer of white and then hint of green. When you slice them, you can easily see why they are called watermelon radish. They are the darlings of the Instagram-food-stylists and I wanted my salad/ramen/crudités to look just as good with my own organically grown radishes. So twice I’ve planted them in the spring just like my other radishes (of which I always have a bumper crop), but all I got was tops… no radish roots. This is a common response of radish when the temperature is too hot, abandon the roots and go straight to flowering (it’s called bolting and it affects many other cool-loving crops) … but it sucks when you are looking to eat the root. Obviously, watermelon radish like it cool and I had made a fatal gardening mistake. I had forgotten about the importance of timing and fall planting for winter harvests.
I have bared my gardening shame in the hopes that my “radish confessional” can help inspire others. We are fortunate to live in a relatively mild climate and it’s easy to get caught up in spring fever but forget about the fall. If we do then we are not getting the full potential out of our garden spaces. So, lets jump in and learn about some of my personal favourites for getting a whole other season out of your garden (they are by no means a complete list, so feel free to head down to the garden centre and explore your own). Who knows, perhaps you too have been struggling to grow something that might just do better with a change in timing.
Summer/fall planting for winter harvests
These are plants that are considered cold weather crops. They don’t grow well in the hot heat of summer, but they also benefit from warm soils to germinate in. So, plant them in the late summer when the soils are warm, as they mature the temperature will start to drop and prevent them from bolting. It’s a perfect situation. If you are planting seeds make sure to read the packages for the timing, most seed packages will list the direct sowing date in reference to the first frost… which in the Lower Mainland is approximately the first week of November and in the Okanagan is around the middle of October.
For obvious reasons this is one of my favourites, bring on the watermelons. Direct seed in late August and early September for a winter harvest. If you miss this planting window of late summer you can also sow seeds 2-4 weeks before the first frost, this allows the seeds to germinate and the small radish plants will overwinter and can be enjoyed when things warm up in the spring.
This is another crop that can be planted for winter harvest or left to overwinter. Direct sow them right now (early August) for a winter crop. One of the keys to growing carrots from seed with success is to water well before you plant, and then make sure the seeds stay moist while they germinate. If they dry out during the germination period your seeds will fail. Also make sure you have good soil; a heavy clay soil is a no-no for carrots. And make sure you don’t plant the tiny seeds too deep, just a light dusting of soil. If you decide to try and overwinter them, then be sure to mulch the roots well with some straw (the tops will die back). Nothing tastes as good as a fresh carrot pulled out of your own garden.
Brussels sprouts –
Nothing fascinates a group of non-gardeners more than witnessing how Brussels sprouts grow. They look like tiny little cabbages all lined up on the stalk and are both fascinating and delicious. My preferred way to grow them, and it’s dead easy which is a refreshing change from my radishes, is to buy some transplants from the garden centre and plant them out in mid to late August. When the frosts hit in November their flavour improves and they will be perfect for December feasts.
Almost all my gardening friends have complained about the arugula this year. It either didn’t grow or bolted from two leaves to flowering in a matter of a week. So, let’s just forget last spring and start a new batch this fall. Direct sow seed from mid-August to late September and enjoy a peppery punch in your cool season salads. If you can give them some cold protection like a cold frame or row cover then you can enjoy arugula right into the spring. This is a perfect crop for the beginning gardener as it’s incredibly easy to grow.
Another salad green that can be prone to bolting in the spring but performs well in the cool autumnal air. Direct sow some seed right now (August) or transplant some starts in late August and enjoy the fresh harvest throughout the fall and winter. If the weather is very warm at sowing/planting you might want to provide some shade in the form of a row cover, and try to keep the soil good and moist. In some situations, your fall/winter spinach may come through to spring for a bonus crop.
The ultimate cold weather green. Winter kale is sweeter and tasty than the spring version. If you are a beginner to gardening, plant kale. I’ve heard many a gardener joke that the planting directions for kale are: throw seed over your shoulder and walk away. Not my recommended planting instructions but it’s just that easy to grow. If you haven’t already sown some kale then do so… now. Or better yet, head down to the garden centre and buy some transplants. As long as you have semi-mature plants when the frost hits kale will survive the winter with no help from you. There are so many varieties to try but my personal favourite is Lacinato (or dinosaur kale), followed closely by Winter Red.
Direct sow scallion seeds in mid-August or plant transplants in September. If the temperatures dip exceeding low you may want to consider a row cover and definitely use some mulch to make sure that these slow–growers can keep going. While they may take a while to bulk up the wait is worth it.
Speaking of worth the wait, overwintering crops are crops that you plant in the summer/fall and then have to wait until next spring to enjoy. These are perfect for the gardener who would like to utilize their garden space but might not want to actually do a lot of gardening in the cool/wet season. Just plant and then wait for spring.
The ultimate overwintering crop, everyone should grow garlic… seriously. If you ever had the joy of eating a garden grown garlic you will never go back to the store-bought imported bulbs again. It is ridiculously easy to grow. Separate and plant the cloves singly (not the entire bulb in one go as has been known to happen with novice gardeners) attempting to keep the papery covering intact. Late September and October is the perfect time to plant garlic and then do almost nothing until the harvest next July. When your plants start to flower (called the scape) in May/June pick them off so that all the plant’s energy goes into bulb production and not flowering. The scapes are delicious added to stir fries or even made into a garlic scape pesto. You will know it’s time to harvest when 2/3 or roughly five of the lower leaves have turned brown and dried. Wait for a dry day and pull the plants up (garlic harvesting is very satisfying). Then let them dry somewhere and brush off the soil when it dried, do not wash them or they will start to rot. I store my garlic in a cool dark place (under the stairs) and they can store until next spring (but I eat them too fast for that).
I love cauliflower but hate the space–to–harvest ratio. It takes up prime garden real estate to grow a cauliflower and I just don’t want to devote that much of my spring garden to get one head of cauliflower. But it’s the perfect crop for the winter garden, the cauliflower can have as much space as it wants in the winter. Plant some transplants in August and enjoy the harvest in the spring. If temperatures drop very low you might want to consider a row cover for protection.