Planting a vegetable garden just seems to go along with spring, doesn’t it? Like an instinctive and seasonal rite of passage. But, says George Winter, owner of Wyntour Gardens in Redding and the Red Bluff Garden Center in Red Bluff, “if you want a vegetable garden, the fall and winter garden is generally easier and less maintenance than the spring and summer one. Time seems more measured in the fall garden – not so hectic,” in George’s opinion. “Temperatures will still be hot when you plant your garden planted in late August early September, but they cool off pretty quickly so you won’t be working in blazing heat; the lower temperatures also mean fewer bugs, and of course your chances of rainfall are much better. So if we have a normal fall and winter, you will be watering your fall-planted garden far less than you had to water your spring-planted one. Planning and planting a fall and winter vegetable garden is very similar to planting your spring/summer one, except the odds are stacked in your favor, so your chances of success are very good.”
Now, of course there are some caveats. You are unlikely to get fabulous tomatoes or cucumbers from your fall planted garden unless you have a greenhouse or other pretty serious protection from cooling temperatures. But most fall-planted crops enjoy the North State’s warm August and September weather for germination and getting established followed by the cooling nights and days of October and November for steady growth. Most fall planted crops can withstand the light frosts of late October and early November fairly well and in many cases a light frost will actually improve the health, vigor and taste of certain crops – like chards and beets.
If you are in a higher and colder area, such as Burney whose average first frost date is late August early September or Mt. Shasta, whose average first frost is late September to early October, and you do not already have your fall-crop seeds in, you may want to use starts, which are already started small vegetable and herb plants – from your local nursery. Further, you may want to provide your starts with some frost protection such as a row covers or horticultural fleece at night. For root crops that prefer to be direct sown from seed, you could use a cold frame or cloche, both of which act like mini-greenhouses, to cover your soil/seeds/starts and until they are on their way. In the warmer portions of the North State “a cold frame over your vegetable beds will really extend your winter harvest season for crops like lettuces.” Mulch is also a good idea for the fall and winter vegetable garden. A layer of mulch such as chopped up dried leaves, dried grass clippings or bark will help keep your soil warm and your can mound it over your young plants on cold nights as light frost protection.
The first order of business is to get your ground ready. George recommends turning your soil and amending with a good deal of compost, and some form of organic all purpose fertilizer or enriched planting mix. He likes a combination of composted chicken manure, mushroom compost, redwood compost and beneficial mychorrizae. “The point is to lighten the soil, improve the fertility especially if the same soil just finished feeding a summer crop, and to improve drainage,” George tells me. He also likes the Down to Earth products that come in 50 pound bags, saying: “If you are amending a big garden area for fertility, it gets pricey to use the small bags or boxes. I like the better value of the 50 lb. bag.”
The second order of business for George is seed or crop selection. In general, George prefers the organic seed lines and carries Botanical Interest and Seeds of Change seed lines among others. His favorite fall-planted crops include: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussell sprouts; lettuce (he likes buttercrunch and romaine), spinach and chard; leeks and sweet onions (such as Walla Wallas, torpedoes and California reds, all of which you can seed now in late August/early September and then prick out when they are pencil sized and transplant anytime from November – December), dry shallots, onions and garlic (which get planted from mid-September to mid-October from “onion sets” or fertile garlic cloves sold at the nurseries; carrots, radishes, beets parsnips and turnips.” For carrots, George likes the Danvers half-longs, “which tend to be a bit shorter, but as a result do really well in all soils.” If you are in a really light raised bed soil, he also recommends the longer nantes carrots. If you are going to pickle your beets, then “cylindrical varieties are better” but otherwise, he likes the very traditional Detroit red beets. For turnips, he likes the purple tops. Peas of all kinds can start to be planted in September and October.
“The wonderful thing about the root crops is that they sweeten up with a little cold weather, and you are not in a rush to harvest them because they store in the ground all winter. If you need some carrots or beets for dinner, you just go out and get them when you want to cook them.”
Once you select your seeds or crops, you begin planting. George direct sows seeds until October and likes to put in successive plantings of most things from Mid-August until October. Once planted, George recommends that watering newly planted seeds or starts everyday unless we have rain, and once they are taking off, pull the water back to once every three days or so, but if we are lucky enough to get rain, even less than that. Once his crops are established, George likes to side-dress his growing plants with compost and all-purpose fertilizer once a month. The fall and winter garden can really grow a great “salad bowl of produce” George tells me. After all of this talk of frost, carrots, potatoes, onions and the rains coming (god willing), I’m actually ready for hot soup. Either way, let’s get this garden started!
George Winter will be hosting a Fall and Winter Vegetable gardening workshop at Wyntour Gardens at 8026 Airport Road in Redding on Saturday August 29th from 10 – 12 pm. It is a free workshop, but you will need to call to reserve your space in advance: 530-365-2256.
The Plant Barn at 406 Entler Ave in Chico is hosting a Fall Planting workshop at the nursery on Entler Avenue in Chico Sunday August 30th at 2:00 pm. This workshop is also free – but space is limited, so call or drop by to reserve your space: 530-345-3121.
All of our good independent nurseries throughout the North State will have all you need to get your fall and winter vegetable garden started, from seeds to compost to starts, just visit and ask. David Grau, organizer of the popular Organic Gardening series of workshops/lectures and field trips held at the Chico Grange last winter, will have another series starting in January of 2010, but he hopes to schedule a seed-saving field trip soon. As fall and winter planting workshops or fieldtrips are announced you will find them listed at the Calendar of Regional Gardening Events. If you have events you would like to see listed, send me an email with all the pertinent information: email@example.com.
Finally, here are some good reading resources, many of which are available at Lyons Books in Chico and other regional independent book stores, to take you even further:
The Sunset Western Garden Book – 2009
The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, by Tanya L.K. Denckla; Storey Books – 2003
Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman; 2nd edition, Chelsea Green -1999
Winter Harvest Handbook, by Eliot Coleman; Chelsea Green – 2009
The New Kitchen Garden, by Anna Pavord; DK Books, London – 1996
The Kitchen Garden, By Norma Cooney; Friedman/Fairfax Books, New York – 2000
edible Shasta-Butte: www.edibleshastabutte.com
edible Sacramento: In a North State Garden is a radio- and web-based outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden celebrates the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region, and is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.