Starting the Winter Garden

Starting the Winter Garden

One of the simplest ways to keep the garden producing at full volume is to make sure it is full of growing crops at all times. After you harvest the first of the summer crops, you will often have time to plant more of them (and should), but you should also start thinking about the fall and winter garden. Winter crops need to do most of their growth before cold weather and short days arrive and slow them down. The almost mature plants will then continue to grow slowly (if the winter is mild), or sit in the garden in an edible state until harvested (if the winter is cold).

Planning the winter garden starts with choosing suitable hardy crops, which would include Asian Greens, Beet, Broccoli, Brussels Sprout, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Celery, Chard, Collards, Chicory, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leek, Lettuce, Parsnip, Rutabaga, Spinach, Turnip and more. You also have to choose the right varieties for winter growing, as there can be considerable variation within a crop. You want cultivars bred to tolerate cold temperatures and short day length.

The right time to start your winter crops depends upon where you live, but generally you can start planting the slower maturing crops, such as leeks, parsnips, celery and Brussel sprouts in mid-summer (July). Transplants of broccoli and cabbage can be started in August for planting in the garden through September. Quicker maturing vegetables, such as turnips and kohlrabi may be planted through mid-October. Generally if you’re your garden isn’t super fertile it’s best to start all of these earlier rather than later. If plants are too small when winter arrives they will just sit in the garden looking pathetic and embarrassing. When spring comes they will resume growing for a week or two and then bolt.

When you open up large areas of bed by harvesting, it makes sense to use the first of them for direct sown crops such as carrot or parsnip that can’t be grown from transplants. At this time of year the bare soil of a seed bed will dry out very quickly, so it’s a good idea to cover it with shade cloth. This keeps it cooler and moister and reduces the need for watering. I like to go even further and cover slow germinating crops like carrot or parsnip with a sheet of cardboard or plywood until just before I expect germination to occur (this also keeps weeds down). Cool weather crops often don’t germinate well at high temperatures, so if a period of cool weather is forecast I try and take advantage of it and get sowing.

Where possible I like to grow winter crops as transplants, as I can get them growing while the garden beds are still occupied; no need to wait for vacant space. You can start the transplants in the greenhouse if it’s not too hot (some cool weather crops won’t germinate if the temperature is too high), but it is usually warm enough to start them outside too. You can simply grow them in flats on a table covered in bird netting, though they will need frequent watering, as containers dry out rapidly. You could also use a specially designated nursery bed, which is simply an area of bed with good soil and covered with bird netting.

For those of us in the milder parts of the country the winter garden is often just as important as the summer garden and this is a crucial time of year. If you miss the window for getting your plants established, you won’t have a winter garden.

My Three Favorite Tools

My Three Favorite Tools

When asked to describe my three favorite tools I initially thought about which tools couldn’t I do without, but that would depend on what I am doing. I have a favorite tool for each task (watering, making compost, weeding, digging) and each task is an essential step in growing vegetables. So instead I thought about the tools I most enjoy using and consider to be best suited to their purpose. This was an easy choice as I have several tools that I wouldn’t want to be without. Even after many years of using them, I am still impressed by how well they work.

Hand Hoe

This hand held little hoe is the ultimate tool for close up weeding. It can scrape over the soil surface and chop down small weeds without disturbing the soil surface (which would bring up more weed seeds to germinate). It is small and maneuverable enough to get between closely spaced plants without damaging them, but much quicker than hand weeding. It makes weeding into a pleasurable and brief activity. gardentoolcompany.com-Hand-Hoe

Haws Watering Can

With its long spout and brace that doubles as a carrying handle, this symbol of gardening tradition is the ultimate watering can. It’s unique design was first patented in 1886 and has been made for well over 100 years without significant changes because it is perfect. It has an interchangeable rose that puts out a perfect upturned spray, it is durable (I’ve had mine for almost 20 years), comfortable, and so well balanced I can use it with one hand. Perfection doesn’t come cheap, with the 2 gallon can costing around $144. However if you amortize that over 25 years it works out to less than $6.00 a year, which makes it sound like a bargain. There is also a cheaper plastic version that works pretty well, but it just doesn’t feel the same. hawswholesale.com-watering-can

T Handle Compost Fork

I bought this Bulldog (now Clarington Forge) tool at Smith and Hawken when it was still primarily a tool company, rather than a brand. It is designed specifically for turning compost and manure and with its wide head and five solid forged tines it works better than anything else I have ever tried (I imagine someone must have done extensive research to find the best way to shovel shit). Even the T handle is perfect, providing a better grip and more maneuverability than a straight handle. claringtonforge.com-compost-fork

A Labor of Love

A Labor of Love

We just delivered 60 lbs of fava beans to the restaurant Barndiva in Healdsburg. Our empathy for farmers grows each season. It takes us hours to pick our favas for each pound – we get $1 in keeping with the current pricing here in Sonoma County. Happy to do it, as we love Barndiva and they love us – “best favas we have ever tasted”. But seriously, how do farmers, let alone, restaurants, make this happen? It takes us several hours to distill down 10 lbs of favas into a mere couple of cups of total heaven. Next time you are in a restaurant and order the fava bean risotto, know that it’s a labor of love on some level, that it’s an incredibly hands on process that gets it on your plate. Enjoy it to the fullest.

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

If you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

    • The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A garden's optimal orientation to the sun

  • A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.
  • Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).
  • If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).
  • You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).
  • Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.
  • Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing.

SmartGardener.com creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!

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Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix has several advantages over buying a pre-packaged mix. That’s why it’s a basic component of Smart Gardener’s approach to organic gardening. Here’s a couple reasons why we like it so much.

1) Simplicity. It makes the whole question of “Which fertilizer do I use?” much simpler. It reduces the amount of boxes, bags and bottles of lots of different fertilizers you have to buy and store.

2) Less costly. It can save you quite a bit of money (as much as 50%), which you can then use for other gardening purposes.

3) Easy. It doesn’t take much time or effort to mix the various materials together, though it can be a bit dusty and the bulk bags are fairly heavy (they usually weigh 50 lb).

4) More flexibility. You can alter the recipe to better suit individual crops and can avoid materials you don’t like (for ecological, ethical or other reasons).

5) Buying bulk and sharing. If you buy the ingredients in the large bags. it’s great for community or school gardens, as well as sharing with neighbors or friends.

Where to buy

Generally the cheapest place to buy your materials is from a farm supply or feed store (a rule of thumb says that it’s cheaper to use materials sold as animal feed rather than fertilizer). If you don’t have a local feed store or farm supply,  then your next option is a garden center. These are set up for home gardeners so everything is in one place and it’s easy to compare materials and prices.

Choosing the ingredients

A complete fertilizer mix will include a source of each of the primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as the secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulfur) and trace elements. The materials you choose depends not only on their nutrient content, but whether your priority is cost, organic purity (the cheaper amendments are mostly waste products from commercial agriculture and may contain pesticide residues or GMO’s) or ethical concerns (we won’t use products from industrial livestock raising).

How much to buy

Some ingredients are used in much greater quantities than others, so if you simply buy one sack of each material you will run out of one ingredient before any of the others. The next time you go to buy ingredients, you will only need to buy those that are in short supply.

Mixing

For convenience you can mix all of the ingredients at once and store it in a cool dry place (though it’s probably best not to store the mix for too long). You can also store them separately and mix as needed. We use the white 5 gallon plastic pails with lids.

The recipe uses proportional quantities so you can use any container (whether a gallon pail or a teaspoon) to make as much as you need. I usually put all of the separate ingredients into a wheelbarrow and mix them thoroughly with a shovel (wear a dust mask as some of the finer ingredients are pretty dusty). It’s not a bad idea to do this over a clean hard surface, so you can recover anything you spill. For smaller quantities, a gardening bucket or pail works well.

Storage

I store the prepared mix in a plastic bin, though you could also use the paper sack the amendments came in. Some of these amendments are edible, so if you have rodent problems you will have to store them in a secure metal or plastic container, otherwise they may get eaten (and you may have a rodent explosion). They also need to be kept dry of course, otherwise they will rot.

Standard Mix

This is a mix of various amendments intended to supply all of the nutrients plants may require. It is usually incorporated into the soil prior to planting. The mix consists of:

4 parts cottonseed meal (this is high in nitrogen and relatively inexpensive)

2 parts colloidal phosphate or bone meal (for phosphorus)

2 parts wood ash or 3 parts greensand or granite dust (for potassium)

1 part dolomitic limestone (to balance pH and add calcium and magnesium)

1 part kelp meal (for trace elements)

Mix these together thoroughly. You can do this all at once, or you can store them separately and mix as needed.

Optional extra:

2 parts of sifted worm castings (This adds microorganisms and micronutrients). I prefer to store this separately and add shortly before using.

Custom mixes

You don’t have to use the recipe above, you can customize it to better suit the crop you are growing. Conventional wisdom recommends giving additional nitrogen to leaf crops, potassium to root crops and phosphorus to seed or fruit crops, so you could add extra of these as required.

 

Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

November isn’t quite over as I write this, but already the seed and fruit catalogs have started to arrive. They will increase in frequency through December and into January and then peter out in February. No doubt they arrive at the most convenient time from the perspective of the seed production business and for the convenience of spring seed starting, but by coincidence it is also a master stroke of marketing. They just happen to arrive when gardeners are first starting to experience garden withdrawal symptoms. We may have been confined inside by inclement weather for weeks and are starting to pine to be outside doing garden things (we have already oiled the wooden handled tools with linseed oil and sharpened everything that needs sharpening).

Perusing seed catalogs has long been a treasured ritual among avid gardeners. We curl up with them by the fireside on cold winter nights (hot cocoa and fuzzy slippers are optional but recommended accessories).  Our catalogs allow us to dream about vegetables and gardening even if our gardens are actually frozen solid beneath three feet of snow (not very likely in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, but that’s part of the mystique). We get to read and reread those descriptions of plump, sweet, tangy, succulent tomatoes and crisp, green, frilly lettuce and admire the glorious color photographs until our imaginations start to run wild, especially if there’s brandy in the cocoa.

Of course we Bay Area gardeners are blessed in that we can actually get out and garden on any day of the year, weather permitting. So we can’t get as intense a seed catalog experience as gardeners in Vermont. Nor would I say that receiving the catalogs is one of the highlights of the gardening year (they don’t actually involve any gardening), but they certainly help to keep the gardening portion of my brain busy during the gap between Christmas and seed starting time.

Receiving seed catalogs predates the electronic age, but just because you love looking at them doesn’t mean you can’t use the Internet to do your buying. One of the great benefits of Smart Gardener is that you can not only plan out your vegetable beds for the next season and get immediate feedback on what you need to do to prepare and plant your garden, but you can also buy the seeds and starts you need all in one place.

If I get all the planning work done in early December, I can look forward to receiving a fat padded yellow envelope in the mail in time for Christmas. I get a little buzz of excitement as I open it, exactly like I used to feel as a child opening my presents. These days, new seeds and the anticipation of getting back into the garden is gift enough for me.

Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Clay soils can be heavy and difficult, but if you persevere they can be very fertile and productive. Ideally your soil will contain at least 20% clay, but no more than 35% (or you can have problems). While clay soils hold on to nutrients well, you may have to adjust the pH of the soil to make the nutrients available.

The downside of clay soil is that roots have a hard time penetrating it because the pores are so small and the particles so densely packed. Additionally, clay soils hold a lot of water (up to eight times as much as a sandy one) and are slow to dry out. This is an advantage in times of drought, but in wet climates it means they get waterlogged easily. Wet clay soils tend to be cold and slow to warm up in spring. It’s no wonder that many plants don’t over-winter well in clay soils.

Use the tips below to turn your clay soil into an environment your plants and other beneficial organisms will love.

Tips for working with clay

•    Limit cultivation to times when soil is not too dry or wet. If you work with dry clay soil it will be so hard it is almost impossible to dig and may crack into large chunks that crumble to dust. When this dust gets wet it sets rock hard, almost like plaster. Cultivation of wet clay is even worse. Wet a clay soil compacts very easily when you put any pressure on it, creating a sticky mass that is also hard to penetrate.
•    Roughly dig the soil in autumn, when it’s relatively dry, and leave it over the winter for frost to break down the large clumps.
•    Add well-decomposed organic matter to help particles cluster together and form larger aggregates. This will improve drainage and aeration.
•    Use green manures to improve structure.
•    Double dig to incorporate organic matter and calcium.
•    Use raised beds to improve aeration and prevent future compaction. Build them high to help them drain and warm up.
•    Slope the sight slightly so the soil can drain more quickly.
•    Never allow the soil to get so dry that is cracks. These cracks increase evaporation and make the soil hard to re-wet because water simply drains away down the cracks. If it does dry out, cultivate the soil surface.
•    You can improve clay soil’s structure by adding a  mix of 80% gypsum and 20% dolomitic lime. Use an ounce of this mix per square foot of soil in spring and again in fall. This may be repeated for a second year, while also adding as much organic matter as possible.
•    Adding calcium may be useful to improve soil structure temporarily, until you can get sufficient organic matter and soil life into the soil. But this only works if the soil is low in calcium.

The Winter Vegetable Garden

The Winter Vegetable Garden

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, many gardeners move indoors for the winter. But for those of us who live in a mild climate where we can grow late autumn and winter crops, we can keep right on growing as long as we pick the right crops, get them in the ground early enough and provide them with the proper protection.

Crop Selection

Some cool weather crops are much better suited to growing in autumn than in spring. Often by the time it’s warm enough for plants to mature in spring, longer days will cause short-day crops (spinach and oriental cabbage) to bolt. The warm temperatures adversely affect their flavor as well. If you plant these crops in late summer, they’ll grow quickly to start and then mature more slowly in the shorter colder days that follow.

For cold weather growing, stick to the tried and true hardy crops:

•    Broccoli
•    Brussels Sprouts
•    Cabbage
•    Carrot
•    Cauliflower
•    Chard
•    Citrust
•    Cornsalad
•    Horseradish
•    Kale
•    Jerusalem Artichoke
•    Leek
•    Mustard Greens
•    Parsnip
•    Turnips

It is important to use the right crop variety at this time of year, as hardiness varies considerably within a crop.

When to Plant

Fall and mild winter crops commonly take longer to mature because the sun is weaker and the days are shorter. To determine the right time to plant a fall crop, figure out the number of days it takes for it to reach maturation (adding extra days to allow for slower growth in autumn). Then determine the day you want them to mature (in areas with frost, this is normally just before the weather turns too cold for good growth). Subtract the number of growing days from the maturation date and you have the sowing date.

It’s a good idea to plant a few successions at this time to make sure you get at least one crop before the frosts and possibly more if the frost is later than expected. If you rarely have frosts, you may be able to continue growing these crops through the winter.

Where to Plant

The beds for winter crops should receive all of the sunlight they can get, so make sure they won’t be shaded. A south-facing slope is the best choice as it gets extra heat from the sun. You might shape your shape winter beds so they tilt slightly to the south to give them a little extra solar gain.

The beds should be well protected from cold winds. Don’t plant the winter garden in a low-lying area, as it might be a frost pocket and much colder than a more elevated slope. The soil should also be well drained, as dampness is often as great as enemy of winter plants as cold is (much of the value of cloches and cold frames is due to their protecting plants from moisture).

Season Extension

The simplest season extending technique is to protect the tender crops from the first occasional autumn frosts. If protected, the plants can sit in the cold garden in an edible state for weeks before having to be harvested. The hardiest autumn/winter crops will continue bearing until temperatures drop down into the 20’s.

The first frost may be followed by several weeks of good growing weather before the next one, so the simple act of covering your plants for a night or two may reward you with several more weeks of harvests.

A quick freeze will do a lot more damage to plants than a gradual decline in temperature (which gradually hardens them off). Happily you can get advance warning of an oncoming frost and act to protect your plants. Almost anything will give protection from a light frost:

•    cloches
•    cold frames
•    old blankets
•    row covers
•    plastic sheeting
•    hay or straw mulch

Cold frames and cloches can even protect plants from more severe frosts. Tall plants such as tomatoes can be unstaked and laid down on the ground for easier protection.

If your unprotected plants are hit by an unexpected frost you may be able to revive them by washing the frost off with a spray of water. This must be done before the sun hits them and thaws them out too quickly. You can also follow the example of commercial citrus farmers and leave a slow sprinkler going all night (don’t turn it off until all ice has melted). But this wastes a lot of water.

You should protect the tender crops for as long as there is good growth in the daytime. It isn’t worth protecting them once the days get cold, as they won’t thrive. It is better to replace them with hardy crops. Or maybe you do want to take a break for a month or two and hibernate. If you’ve been diligent and canned, dried or frozen some of your earlier harvests, you can enjoy the fruits of your own garden until you’re ready to start preparing again for the spring.