When it comes to cool-season vegetables, discard the notion that bigger is better. Instead, think small: small plants and small spaces.
Summer is the time for busting loose, with sky-high corn, voluminous tomato bushes and sprawling vines that bear mighty melons and giant pumpkins.
Winter crops tend to be dainty wee ones, with roots that are happy to live out their lives in confined spaces. Many are content to grow in containers, or tucked into nooks and crannies in the garden.
Cool-season edibles don’t require the same attention as their summer counterparts, either. A long run of cloudy days may slow their growth, but won’t stunt or stop them. Winter rains help with the watering, but don’t particularly promote diseases. Other than snails and slugs, there are few pests to contend with.
Preparing the Soil
Growing winter veggies is not difficult. But you do still need to take time to prepare the soil properly. Drainage is important. Your plants may not survive if they sit in cold puddles for days on end.
Leafy crops, such as salad greens and spinach, need only 6 to 8 inches of soil, so are perfect in containers, where they can be planted close together. Use fresh potting soil, rather than dirt shoveled from your garden. In a raised bed or in the ground, add fine-textured compost or other well-aged, organic material to help with fertility and get that drainage going.
Root crops, such as beets, carrots, radishes and turnips, need exceptionally loose soil, both so that their downward growth doesn’t become distorted, and so that they’re easy to pull at harvest time. As for how far down to go — in general, you should provide twice the depth of the crop. Radishes may need only a few inches, while a full-size carrot may require 12 to 18 inches or more.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Swiss chard grow bigger, take longer to mature and are more tolerant of wet feet. However, they are happiest when planted in rich soil that drains reasonably well and is at least 12 to 18 inches deep.
A number of winter crops grow fast. Beets, radishes, leaf lettuce and turnips may all be ready for picking six to eight weeks after they sprout.
The simplest technique for these speed racers is to replant their entire beds several times before warm weather begins next spring. Be sure to rejuvenate the soil between plantings.
Succession planting is a method especially popular with salad greens. Every two to three weeks, sow a new row of seeds or plant a new row of transplants. The plants will mature in waves, rather than all at once.
Or you can match fast growers with slow developers. For instance, interplant lettuce with cauliflower. The lettuce will be ready for harvest well before the three months that it can take for the cauliflower to reach full size.
Other veggies are suited for prolonged harvests. With this method, you snip or clip around the edges and the plants will continue to produce new growth. Leaf lettuce, broccoli and Swiss chard are good candidates. Loose-leaf lettuces can be harvested for six to eight weeks; Di Cicco broccoli for up to 3 months; and Swiss chard for six months to a couple of years.
Seeds or Transplants
Root crops are difficult to transplant, so sow their seeds directly where you want the plants to grow.
Prepare the soil, then drag your finger in a straight line to shape a shallow furrow. The seeds will be tiny. Pour some from the packet into your hand, then dribble them into the row.
Gently pinch the soil from the sides of the furrow back over the top, creating a cover only a quarter to a half-inch thick. Then thoroughly wet the bed with a gentle spray from a water bucket or hose. Use too much force and you risk blasting away the seeds.
When your seedlings emerge, thin them to the spacing recommended on their seed packet.
Leaf crops can be grown from seeds or transplants. I prefer buying pony packs, for the variety. Rather than sowing a whole row of just one or two types, I can pick and choose at the nursery and grow six or eight different types in the same, small space.
Buying transplants of the larger winter crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Swiss chard, saves time to harvest. Otherwise, you might overplant. For instance, a packet of broccoli seeds may produce 25 to 50 plants. Yet six broccoli plants, all maturing at the same time, is plenty for a family of four.
Protect Your Crops
Early on, wintering birds will be all too happy to devour your new seedlings. Planting your larger cool-season vegetables from transplants bypasses that problem. But for your root crops and anything else that you grow from seed, plan to cover the top and sides of the bed with netting until the seedlings are several inches high and have produced several sets of beefy leaves.
Snails and slugs can be persistent, especially during rainy weather. They love munching their way into the inner folds, crinkles and curves of the leaves.
Hand-pick the slimy pests. Or bait with a non-toxic organic product such as Sluggo, which is composed of iron phosphate; set out shallow dishes of beer or rinds of squeezed oranges; or line the perimeter of the bed with sharp gravel that will cut into their soft bodies. Do not use any products that will harm you or your pets.
Cool-Season Vegetables to Plant Now
Seeds of Wisdom
Cool-season vegetables are at their best with consistent moisture, fertile soil, good drainage and at least four to six hours of direct sunlight — at least on the days that the sun shines.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.