Cold Weather Options for Minimalist, Moderate, or Maximized Gardens
by Torrey Douglass
Excellent gardeners have always impressed me beyond measure. I’m amazed at how they can stick their hands in the dirt and, a few months later, pull out something beautiful or edible (often both). They are magicians of seed and soil, weaving spells with water, sunshine and time until— presto!—dinner. Not a bad skillset.
If gardening is magic, winter gardening is nothing short of miraculous, at least to someone with my limited talents. So with the days growing shorter and the tomato plants starting to wither, it seemed an apt time to consult Boonville master gardener Linda MacElwee to harvest some tips about gardening options for the colder months.
The Minimalist Approach
Some folks just want to tidy up their beds and make sure they’re in good shape to get back to the business of growing things come spring. If you’re in this camp, all you need to do is collect whatever seeds you want to use from your summer plants, then pull those plants out and add them to the compost pile. Sprinkle an inch or so of compost over the top of your beds, adding in gypsum to break it up a little if your soil has high clay content. Cover with straw and call it good! You can also plant a cover crop like fava beans or bell beans to increase nitrogen in your soil. These crops won’t need ongoing care, provided the season experiences average levels of rainfall.
In the spring, be sure to remove the straw and, if you did plant cover crops, cut off the tops of the plants and remove those, too. If you mix the straw and plant tops into your soil directly, it will add too much carbon, and you risk attracting symphylans—tiny white centipede-like insects that will munch on plant roots and take a once-healthy bed from thriving to shriveling in no time. Local farmers have been known to just walk away from plots suffering from symphylans, since there are no organic methods to effectively control them, so prevention is your best strategy.
Last, if you do plant cover crops, wait three to five weeks once you’ve removed the tops so the roots can release their nitrogen into the soil. After that, work in the roots as you prep your soil for spring planting.
Easy Winter Gardening
For gardeners who want to do some low maintenance gardening through the winter, garlic and hearty greens can complement your cover crops. Plant garlic cloves with the pointed side up about an inch in the soil. Remember that the bulbs will contain cloves of similar size to the original, so avoid the temptation to use this as a way to clear out your tiny cloves, and choose big healthy ones.
You can plant winter greens like kale and chard from seed in September. (Linda likes dinosaur kale and swiss chard, while I’m partial to rainbow chard, because who doesn’t like rainbows?) Water one to two times per week during dry spells, and these prolific plants will serve you until spring.
Tender greens can also be planted from seed in September. You’ll want to give them a little protection from frost, so cover them with reemay—a light material that allows 70% of sunlight to hit the plants while protecting them from frost and wind. You can loosely drape it over the plants and weigh down the edges with rocks, or, if you’re feeling fancy, create some hoops with PVC or wire for some mini-hoop houses to shelter those tender greens from the weather. Arugula or a mesclun mix are both excellent choices for your winter garden.
Ambitious Winter Gardening
For those who want to maximize their garden’s food production during the winter, you’ll need to plan ahead. Start broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts from seed in June and July, then transplant to your garden in August and September—it’s particularly satisfying to have your own garden-grown brussel sprouts for the Thanksgiving table. You can directly sow seeds for spinach, beets, carrots, and peas in early August.
If you miss the late summer planting for hardy veggies like leeks and broccoli, you can grow starts inside during the fall and plant them in January or February. They will bide their time until spring and then take off, giving you something to harvest while you’re putting in your summer garden.
To really pull out the stops for your winter garden, consider growing some grains. Oats, wheat, barley, and rye can all be direct seeded in October after the first rains, and hopefully will have at least six weeks before a serious frost. Keep them moist until the seedlings pop up, at which point they will do fine without irrigation. Oats and barley will grow back if they are cut once they are two feet tall, providing greens that can be used as mulch or feed for your animals. Don’t cut them back if you are growing them for food, but instead wait until late spring and harvest them by cutting about 12 inches from the top of the plant.
In many ways, winter gardening is less work than summer gardening. The colder temperatures and reduced sunlight slow growth, and weeds are easier to keep in check as a result. Rains help out with watering, and there are fewer insects around to harass your plants (though keep your eyes out for snails and slugs). You’ll want to pay special attention to soil health, so invest in some compost in the autumn. Also keep an eye on drainage so plants don’t get waterlogged, and group them closer together to discourage erosion.
It’s nice to know there are options for gardeners who don’t want to hang up their trowels in the fall. Whether you want a minimalist, easy, or ambitious winter garden, planning ahead, caring for your soil, and protecting against erosion will ensure your beds are in great shape for spring planting. And for those who put the extra energy into cultivating during the cold months, having fresh veggies on the table in the dark of winter strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.
Torrey Douglass is a web and graphic designer living in Boonville with her husband, two children, and a constantly revolving population of pets and farm animals.
Sources include expert gardener Linda MacElwee and two online articles: https://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/5545/a-wintervegetable- garden-in-northern-california/page/all and https://www. motherearthnews.com/