Winter Vegetable Garden

Winter Vegetable Garden

Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs is one of the best things that you can do for yourself and your family.  When you pick the food, and bring it to your table, you are eating the freshest food available.  The taste will amaze you, and the nutrients and minerals are plentiful and will give you a buzz of energy.  You will know what is in (or not in) your food, too, as you will have control over application of pesticides and herbicides, whereas you have no idea what really happened on the farm that grew your grocery store produce.  Your body will thank you for getting some exercise out in the yard and for eating more fruits and vegetables.  Not only is it healthy, but it is extremely satisfying to watch your garden grow.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are lucky to have a mild enough climate that we can grow food year round.  The trick is growing the right stuff for the season.  It is early enough to sow seeds for winter production, but if you want to bypass the seedling stage, your local hardware store sells vegie starters, and sometimes organic is available.  If you want to insure that your vegies and herbs are organic, then go with non-GMO seeds.  The advantage to non-GMO seeds, especially Heirloom varieties, is that you will be able to collect seeds from the food that you produce, and then you won’t have to pay for next year’s crop seeds.

How To Set Up Your Winter Garden

You can easily grow food in pots, as long as the pot is big and deep enough.  Start with an organic soil, meaning that it is comprised of parts that were all natural in their origin.  Avoid soils, such as Miracle Gro, that advertise “moisture control” or “added fertilizers” and stuff like that; you want to be able to control what kind of fertilizers you are applying.  (Note: Miracle Gro is owned by Round-Up, and Round-Up is owned by Monsanto, if you get my drift.)

If you want heartier plants and a bigger harvest, plant in the ground.  The main problem with planting in the ground is gophers.  I suggest that if you are planting in the ground, lay down galvanized chicken wire or gopher mesh, and pin it down with landscape fabric staples.  Make sure to protect the edges of the garden; maybe fold it up on the ends so the gophers can’t get in laterally from on top of the wire.  This can become quite a project– if you lay it straight down on the ground, you will have to build up the soil on top, which can be costly (depending on the size of your garden bed, you will have to order a few cubic yards of soil to be delivered, and then you will have to cart it from where the dump truck drops it to it’s ultimate destination.)  Another way to do this, which is just as laborious but not as expensive, is to dig down a couple feet of your garden bed and pile the soil to the side, lay down the wire, and then put the garden soil back on top of the chicken wire, bringing in a few bags of fresh soil and compost to mix in with your native soil.  Either way you perform this, lightly tamp the soil before you sow your seeds.

Keep your seeds and soil slightly moistened for the next few weeks while your seeds germinate and the seed leaves emerge from the soil surface.  Don’t drown or drench the soil since you could wash away the seeds– the “shower” setting on your hose end sprayer is perfect for lightly moistening the surface.

When your seedlings are an inch or two inches tall, it is time to thin them.  Instead of pulling them, just cut them off at the base.  This makes it so you don’t disturb the roots of the seedlings that you want to keep.  By the way, you can eat most of the various types of thinned seedlings– sprouts are delicious and highly nutritious.

Keep a close eye out for slugs, snails, caterpillars and cut worms which can devastate a field of seedlings overnight.  I look through my garden each morning for caterpillars, and go out with a flashlight at night to collect slugs during their respective seasons.

Once your plants are tall, they may “bolt” if there is a hot and sunny day, meaning they send up a leggy flower stalk.  Trim off the bolted section right away, if the goal is to grow greens.  Bok choy, kale, and lettuce will begin to send energy to the flower instead of the intended greens, and the greens will die back, so it is imperative to stay on top of these bolts.  No need to waste the trimmed flower stalks– bok choy and kale flowers are edible and delicious, a festive, colorful look to any salad, steam, or stirfry.

What to Grow in Your Winter Garden

Almost all of the Cruciferous vegetables are winter producers, and are all packed densely with vitamins, minerals, micro-nutrients, and phytochemicals.  They taste incredible when eaten the same day of the harvest, and will give you a buzz of energy.  The Cruciferous vegetables, also known as ‘cole crops’, that can be successfully grown in the San Francisco bay area’s winter are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard, bok choy, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kohlrabi, horseradish, and arugula.  All of these plants can be eaten in their entirety– from the thinned seedlings or sprouts to the foliage, flowers, stalks, seeds, and roots.  The broccoli leaves are good steamed or stir-fried, and the stalks are packed with Vitamin C.  Radish sprouts are a spicy addition to your salad, and the full grown greens would give fresh squeezed green juice a nice kick.

Besides growing the hearty, protein-rich greens of the Cruciferous family, it is also the perfect season to grow your other greens– lettuces, spinach, and chard.  Lettuce should be protected from full sun to avoid it bolting, and can be thinned and eaten as baby greens.  It can also be planted all through out the winter to insure continuous crops.

Peas and fava beans can be planted, and will need something to climb on; a good use for your tomato cages and cucumber trellises after those summer crops have been harvested.

Winter is a great time to grow shade loving herbs– basil, thyme, lemon balm, parsley, chives, and mint will all thrive.  Just keep in mind that thyme and mint both spread on runners and are best to isolate from the garden bed, instead grow in a wide, shallow pot.

Garlic, shallots, and onions can be planted, as well as artichokes, rhubarb, and parsnips.  If you live in a sunny area without a lot of fog, then you can plant your carrot seeds as early as January for a spring crop.

Also, don’t forget that the winter rains give a newly planted tree a boost towards establishment, so this would be a good time to get your back-yard mini orchard planted.  Plum, apple, pear, and lemon are all good Bay Area producers, and can normally be found at the nurseries now and after Christmas.  Other citrus, such as Kumquat, Orange, and Grapefruit, will do well if you live in a hotter area, such as Oakland or San Mateo.  Avoid stone fruits such as peach and apricot, as the trees have a very hard time growing here, they are prone to local fungal diseases, and they don’t produce.  Also, avoid Avocado and Fig, unless you were looking to plant an awesomely large, future shade tree– both are well suited to grow heartily in our area, but rarely will they produce ripened fruit.

Good luck, and check back in the spring for your summer garden checklist.

Winter Pruning Series

Winter Pruning Series

While my fellow San Francisco Bay Area residents are gearing up for winter (and celebrating another World Series victory by the SF Giants!), my husband and I are gearing up for pruning season.  Like pest and disease control, pruning is an extensive topic, overwhelming in detail and specifics, so I will not be able to explain everything quickly, which is why I am introducing another series– pruning practices.  One of my pet peeves is poor pruning, so I hope that my knowledge can make a positive impact on the home gardener, and turn around bad habits in the garden that can lead to pests, diseases, and an ugly mess.

As always, if you submit a question in the comments section, I will be sure to respond with the appropriate garden advice, and if you need one-on-one instruction or hands-on garden training, my husband and I are available for hire as your personal garden coach team.

Winter Pruning Overview

As the days grow colder, and darkness beckons earlier and earlier, most of our Bay Area plants sense the signaling change and decide to go to sleep for the winter.  The hibernation begins as early as late fall, whereas some plants don’t begin to go dormant until winter is fully upon us.  The main pruning season is November through January in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Since we have such nice weather, and the days fluctuate between hot and sunny, clear and cold, warm and overcast, biting winds and rain, even the occasional freeze, our poor plants get confused!  Our plants have no idea whether to go to sleep, or wake up, keep blooming or drop their leaves.  Sometimes you need to give them direction and assistance by forcing them into dormancy, and then giving them a gentle meal to help them wake back up in the spring.

Spring may be the best time to clean out your house, but the winter is all about cleaning out the garden.  This is the perfect time to reduce overgrown hedges, cut back unruly, leggy perennials, and give shape to wild or heavy trees.  Pruning is the perfect garden activity to keep us busy in that slow season when the plants aren’t growing; something to do between picking up the fall leaves and pulling the excited winter weeds, exuberant from the nitrogen-rich rains.

Pruning is a necessary activity to keep your garden healthy and safe.  The obvious reason to prune is to reduce the overall size of plants, shrubs, vines, and trees and rein some control over your garden.  The more subtle reason is to prevent diseases from spreading and pest infestations.  By keeping plants open and airy, pests have no shelter to congregate, and mold, mildew, and fungus don’t have a dark, dank place to grow.  By removing diseased tree branches, you can prevent the spread of the disease.  By removing dead tree branches, pests don’t have a place to move in and populate.  By removing branches that have poor form or weak connections, you keep your garden a safer place– said branches don’t have the opportunity to fall in your garden or on you, your pets, or your family when a gust of wind blows through.  Also, if a branch does fall as opposed to being neatly removed, there could be a large tear in your tree that will compromise the health of the tree– tears are another entry point for pests and diseases.

There are a number of plants that should not be pruned in the winter, and the rule of thumb on those are the ones that are in bloom that season.  The most common winter bloomers in the San Francisco Bay Area are: Camellias, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Pieres, Hellebores, Citrus trees, and most succulents.  These plants should be pruned in the summer instead, before they set their winter buds.  With that short list out of the way, you can see just how busy you will be this winter in the garden (unless your garden is comprised of a Camellia pygmy forest!)

The plants and trees that you should focus on will be the perennials, shrubs (especially the ones that drop their leaves, such as roses and hydrangeas), vines, and deciduous trees, especially Maples and fruiting trees, that rely on annual pruning for shape and fruit production, respectively.

In the mean time, while you are waiting to winter prune your garden, it’s time to sow seeds for your winter vegetable garden!  Come back next week for my article on which vegies and herbs do great during our cool, dark and rainy winters.

Low maintenance lawns for shady areas

Low maintenance lawns for shady areas

I live and work in Pacifica, which is a coastal community well known for it’s fog.  I have been able to grow lawns here successfully, but it took some practice to figure out which kinds of grass do well.  Aside from going with the recent, revamped trend of putting in artificial turf, there are at least two types of sod that will work in the sun as well as light shade/foggy conditions.  They are both low-maintenance as well.

No Mow Grass  (http://pacificsod.com/nomow_specguide.pdf)

Another recent trend is using No Mow grass, a very fine fescue that grows in tall clumps and has a natural wave to it, mimicking the look of sand dunes.  Deep green year round, this fescue requires little water and can take light sun or moderate shade, and never needs mowing, as it’s name suggests.  This is not a good kind of grass if you mean to play or hang out on your lawn– but perfect if you only want to look at it.  I have seen it successfully at use on the boulevards and along slopes in San Francisco.

Medallion Dwarf with Bonsai  (http://pacificsod.com/medbonsai_specguide.pdf)

This sod is a special blend of two types of grasses– one suited to sun, and one to shade, so it is perfect for full sun areas that also deal with fog on a regular basis.  When planted in full sun, you will have a super thick carpet of wide emerald green blades (as seen on this website on the home page and the services page), crowding out potential weeds.  When planted in part shade, you will have a full lawn of thin, soft, dark green blades.  When planted in the full shade, you will have a sparser lawn, but at least you will have a lawn!  Medallion Dwarf Bonsai’s slogan is “Slow Growing, Less Mowing”– you only have to mow every other week in the growing season, and every three weeks in the winter when the lawn goes dormant in mild-season climates.  Requires a moderate amount of water– three times a week is sufficient during the growing season.

Alternate Shady Area Idea– Groundcover Lawn

If you don’t want the fluffy dune look of the No Mow fescue, but have a large area that you don’t want to have to mow, consider installing groundcover in that area.  Two things to be forewarned about: during establishment of the groundcover, weather you have planted by plug or by seed, you will be wrestling with weeds until the desired plants fill in; most groundcovers are invasive, and will want to travel into your neighboring flower beds.

Some excellent choices for full to part shade ground-hugging creepers would be Lesser Periwinkle aka Dwarf Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Scottish Moss, Irish Moss, Dichondra, and Baby’s Tears.  If you want a little height to your shaded groundcover lawn, choose one of these groundcovers: Carpet Bugle (Ajuga), Lamium, Red Clover or Ornamental Oxalis (such as Charmed Wine Shamrocks).