Kale and Carrots and Leeks, Oh My!: Growing Your Winter Garden... In July

BUT WHY NOW?

On these delicious summer days, with the first tomatoes blushing on the vine, zucchinis growing right before our eyes, and sweet corn just around the corner, it is difficult to imagine the dark and dreary days of winter that will also be ours.  And yet, if you want kale in December, and carrots in February, or cauliflower in April the time to plant is, well... Now.

Yes indeed, it's already time to plant the vegetables that you will harvest all winter long!

These winter months are times when most of our vegetable gardens are asleep: covered with mulch, or a winter cover crop... or weeds.  We don't think of winter as a time for vegetable gardening, and for many of us gardening from Spring through Fall is enough...

...but not for me.

Western Oregonians know all too well how long our winters can be.  The wait for the first arugula and radishes of Spring plantings can seem interminable.  And I'm here to tell you:  It doesn't have to be that way!  Many people think you need a greenhouse or cold frames or wizard magic to have a successful winter garden, but its just not true.  The truth is, there are many hardy and delicious vegetables that will grow right on through the winter, unprotected, in your garden beds.  They can be harvested snow or shine during windows from November all the way through April!!

 Most Kale varieties are extremely winter hardy and can withstand temperatures in the low teens !!   Black Tuscan  is pictured here.

Most Kale varieties are extremely winter hardy and can withstand temperatures in the low teens !!  Black Tuscan is pictured here.

THE WINTER VEGETABLES

Arugula, Beets, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Chard, Collard Greens, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Parsley, Parsnips, Radicchio, Radishes, Rutabaga, Spinach, Sprouting Broccoli, and Turnips!

All of these vegetables can be harvested during different windows from November all the way through April.  Growing a Winter garden, doesn't have to be difficult, but as always, there are a few very important things to consider.  The most important factors in the success of your winter garden are your selection of vegetables to grow, selection of winter hardy varieties, and the seasonal timing of your planting.  Of secondary importance are things like pest protection, method and timing of your harvest, and additional frost protection for certain vegetables.

Winter gardening is fundamentally different than gardening during the rest of the year, and it is important to understand what your vegetables are expecting during their extra long path to your kitchen, so that you also know what to expect. 

The funny thing about winter gardening, is that 90% of the actual gardening happens in the Summer and Fall.  Winter is a time mostly for harvesting the vegetables that you have tended and nurtured in prior months.  Besides, who wants to spend too much time in their garden in a downpour?

 Parsnips are one of the unique treats of a winter garden.   Cobham  pictured here, is one of my favorite varieties.

Parsnips are one of the unique treats of a winter garden.  Cobham pictured here, is one of my favorite varieties.

WINTER GROWTH HABITS

After about the Fall Equinox (September 21st), you will notice that the growth of all plants in your garden will slow significantly.  This is due to the decreasing amount of available sunlight as well as diminishing temperatures.  From October 15th-February 15th your garden will all but have ground to a halt.  Leaves will drop, vines will wither, and your perennial plants will move into their various states of dormancy.  But not so for the all-star cast of your annual winter vegetables.  They will be slowly but surely moving into their prime!

It is this exceedingly slow winter growth that makes the timing of winter plantings so essential.  Kale, for instance, that is planted too early in the summer will have grown to maturity and likely be moving into its reproductive phase and past its prime when winter sets in.  On the other hand, kale that is planted too late in the year will still be a teenager when winter arrives and will never reach a harvestable size because of lack of available light and warmth.

Once you plant your winter vegetables, resist the urge to harvest!  Your ability to harvest these plantings is dependent on their approaching full maturity going into winter.  This serves the dual purposes of protecting them from winter frosts as well as giving you something to harvest through the winter. 

I always like to have a dedicated separate space for my winter vegetables to create some clear separation.  It also helps to have summer gardening spaces free of plants when its time to prepare garden beds for spring planting.

VARIETAL SELECTION

Once you know what vegetables you would like to grow for the winter, do a little research to identify varieties that are especially suited for winter production.  In our climate, cold and frost resistance is generally the most important quality when selecting varieties, however resistance to fungal disease is also an important quality during a long wet winter.  Do your own research, talk to local nurseries, and browse seed catalogs for special winter varieties.

I have my own favorite varieties for winter production for every vegetable listed above.  Feel free to e-mail me (ian@portlandediblegardens.com) or comment below if you have a specific question regarding varietal selection.

 Many of the Savoy type cabbages are especially suited for winter growing.

Many of the Savoy type cabbages are especially suited for winter growing.

WINTER PLANTING DATES:

I cannot take up the specifics of ideal winter planting dates here, as they vary between each of the vegetables listed above, however, most vegetables intended for a winter harvest should be planted between July 15th and August 15th.  Yes, that's now!!  Notable exceptions are leeks which take many months to mature, and should be planted no later than June 1st in order to fully size up.  Also, arugula, and radishes should be closer to September 1st since they are so much quicker to mature and may otherwise bolt before winter temperatures/day length slow them down.

My strong suggestion would be to keep good notes about your planting dates for each vegetable so you can make meaningful adjustments in the years to come.

Also, check out this amazing Winter Gardening Chart put out by Territorial Seed Company regarding winter vegetable gardening.  It is a great place to start for planting dates as well as a bunch of other useful information.

 Winter Gardening Chart courtesy of Territorial Seed Company

Winter Gardening Chart courtesy of Territorial Seed Company

RECAP

So you have been pulled out of your summer reverie and forced to plan ahead for the winter.  But you will be happy you did, because you are ready to plant your winter garden!

Things To Remember :

• Winter gardening is all about Summer plantings that mature in late Fall and grow little over the winter but are harvestable for many months

• Select vegetables that are well suited for winter production in your climate (see list above)

•Select varieties that are cold hardy and resistant to fungal diseases if possible

• Plant your winter garden between July 15th and August 15th (Exceptions: Leeks by June 1st, Arugula, Radishes, Spinach by September 1st

• Wait to harvest winter plantings until they reach full maturity

• Enjoy the freshest food in the universe, all winter long!