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.