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Don’t Believe Everything You’re Told

When I moved to Geyserville, California in May of last year, I was excited to grow my own food for the first time. But immediately my neighbors dashed my hopes. They told me that it was too late to grow much this year – that I’d have to wait until next year. Sure enough, I found a pamphlet put out by the local Master Gardeners, confirming that it was too late to plant most crops.

Fortunately, I didn’t listen.

Matt and I first amended the soil. Then we made garden beds. And then, between mid-June and mid-July, we finally got in our tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, winter squash, runner beans, bush beans, tomatillos, ground cherries, beets, carrots, radishes, scallions, corn, oregano, cilantro, fennel, and loads of salad greens of all different types. Plus worms and microbes to help them along. A few weeks later we planted kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, kale, more winter squash, melons, and started successional planting our greens and carrots.

What didn’t work? The melon plants produced tiny little melons that tasted awful. The corn never got knee high before it died. And my first try at carrots didn’t work. (But the second time they did better, and the third time they flourished.) Everything else thrived! Our first harvest was July 8th (below).

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In September, our neighbors told us we would lose our garden to the rains any moment. In October, they said we would lose it to the frosts. In November, they gave up telling us about gardening, when we still had tomatoes on the vine and a full garden of veggies (which we shared with them). And it wasn’t just our neighbors, it was the nurseries that shuttered their doors, the hardware stores that put away their gardening supplies, and the conventional gardening books and websites that told us to dig up our old summer plants and mulch for the winter.

We harvested 240 lbs. of tomatoes from 4 plants. We consumed more zucchini and crooked neck squash than I care to think about (until I found the beauty of squash blossoms). We had many more beans than we could eat. We made loads and loads of tomatillo salsa, fresh even as a Thanksgiving appetizer. We had enough winter squash that we ate casserole, souffle, and pumpkin pie many times and still had two squashes left over in April. We ate out of our garden at every meal from July 2007 through the time we left in May 2008.

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We didn’t listen. But we read. And we paid attention to the weather. We covered our tomatoes as it began to get cold and wet and when there was danger of frost (we were still picking tomatoes on the solstice!). We sheltered our greens with a shade cloth (above), which kept the sun off in the summer and the rain off in the winter. We put burlap over our carrots in the summer and took it off as the weather cooled down in the fall. We stored root vegetables in the ground, harvested their leaves as tasty greens, cellared our green tomatoes when the frost did hit one too many times in late November, carefully stored our winter squash and beans, dried our ripe tomatoes in the oven, froze string beans and summer squash, and welcomed fresh lemons in the middle of winter… Truth be told, if we had to, we could have survived on are garden alone through the fall and winter.

All because we really wanted to do it and nothing was going to stop us. So we found ways to extend the seasons, and to use them to our advantage.

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Ten Reasons To Grow A Four-Season Garden

  1. Growing your own food reduces the distance your food travels from the farm to you (10 feet, say, versus 250-2,500 miles). That means you’re eliminating the petroleum products used in farming equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, packaging, storage, and transportation.
  2. By reducing the distance your food travels from the farm to you, you also reduce your overall carbon output, taking a bite out of your impact on climate change.
  3. In the winter when most farmer’s markets close up shop, you’ll still have fresh, tasty produce.
  4. When you grow your own food, you also know where your food is coming from (no weird salmonella strains in your tomatoes and spinach, for instance).
  5. Home grown food tastes many times better and has more vitamins and minerals than vegetables raised in a monocultural setting.
  6. You can choose to grow various heirloom crops that you just can’t buy in a grocery store.
  7. You can choose to grow crops that aren’t genetically modified.
  8. You can save seed and create different varieties that are best suited for your little backyard microclimate.
  9. Knowing how to grow your own food makes you much more adaptable to whatever economic or environmental hardship that comes your way in the future.
  10. And lastly, it’s fun, it tastes better, and gardening nourishes your soul.

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When To Plant Fall and Winter Gardens

  • Plant in early to mid-summer for a fall garden.
  • Plant in the late summer and early fall for a winter garden.

Obviously this is a general rule of thumb. Some of you in the lower hardiness zones will want to be planting your winter gardens asap – yesterday even. I know I sound like a broken record, but seek out your local Master Gardeners and get your hands on a planting schedule for your area. It won’t be perfect, but it will be a general guide for you.

Then find out your average frost date. You can find this in the Farmer’s Almanac, or a good local nursery, or farmers in the area. When you find this out, you will know the date at which – more or less – your winter crops should be matured. You can work backwards from that date, looking at a seed packet for the “dates to maturity.” If your seed packet doesn’t tell you, a good gardening book will (see references in Part 2).

For example, if your first frost date is October 15th, and you’re planting something that needs 30 days from seeding until maturity, you’ll want to plant it at around September 15th, maybe a bit later depending on how warm your fall days are. But having said that, don’t be afraid to experiment and see if you can get more out of your garden – if it’s September 15th and your seeds don’t mature for 60 days, try planting a few anyway – they’re just seeds! Alternatively, you can plant seedlings from a nursery and gain at least 2-3 weeks.

Your fall crops will also grow a bit faster if you mulch them and/or cover them using one of the season extensions discussed in Part 2.

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Good Fall and Winter Crops

Root vegetables: carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas

Greens: kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, collards, Asian greens (eg, bok choy, mizuna), arugula, radicchio, lambsquarters, mesclun lettuces, orach, sorrel, endive

Brassicas: brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi

Herbs: oregano, marjoram, basil, cilantro, parsley, chives, fennel, and any perennial herb

Others: Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), scallions, leeks, peas, celery, celeriac, bush beans, fava beans, garbanzo beans, oats

Fruits: There also some fruits that are harvested in the winter, like apples, pears, persimmons, and citrus fruits. But you’ll need to plant these in late fall, winter, or early spring.

Summer Crops: Almost every summer crop can extend into November, if you live in a temperate climate. Tomatoes, tomatillos, winter squash, berries, beans are all good candidates for fall season extension.

Over-Wintering and Cover Crops: I’ll reserve these for another post. Over-wintering crops are ones that are planted in the fall, are then left well-mulched over the winter, and become your first crops of the early spring. Cover crops are those that protect the topsoil from rains and snow, and add nutrients to the soil – either through their roots or when dug into the soil in early spring.

(Note: this is by no means a complete list – if you have other suggestions, please feel free to share! And do forgive my loose taxonomy.)

More To Come

Stay Tuned For Part 2: How To Extend the Season and Get the Most Out of Your Fall and Winter Gardens.

Also, if you’re thinking about growing a fall or winter garden and need some extra incentive, join us in The Growing Challenge!

Please Share Your Knowledge And Experiences

What else do you all grow in the fall and winter? What books and other resources do you use? What is your favorite method of season extension? Any of you who haven’t done this before, do you have specific questions about it?