As August winds down and the summer crops are harvested, some home gardens are starting to look a little, well, ready for hibernation. But what you may not know is that this is a prime time to get your garden ready to continue the harvest into the winter months. I recently caught up with Anna Hanau, who spent the previous two years managing a four-acre organic farm in northwest Connecticut[ and recently helped start up a New York-based ethical meat company, Grow and Behold Foods.
Here in Southern California I am able to keep growing throughout the “winter.” That is well known. But, Anna points out, it may come as a surprise that the harvest season can easily be extended into the winter months even in a climate like that in the North East, as long as you plan properly. In Connecticut, Anna was able to harvest salad crops into December with the use of row cover.
Some of the slower growing, cold-hardy crops already in your garden from July will do well into the cold months. These include brassica plants like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts. In Anna's experience, the flavor of these crops becomes even sweeter after the first frost. She also shared that after you have harvested all the sprouts from your Brussels sprouts, the top leaves can be eaten and are quite delicious. Unless you live in a more temperate climate, like here in Southern California, it's probably too late to plant these crops now. But, this is a good time to plant salad crops.
The steps you need to take to harvest winter salad crops are not so different from those to harvest in the summer and fall, except for the timing (you should plant right now) and crop selection.
Step 1: Select the right crops. Select crops that do well in cold weather and will be ready to harvest in time. Anna recommends bok choy, tatsoi, spinach, arugula, and mizuna. Other candidates are mache, radish, beets, chard, and carrots. Whether you plant from seed or transplants is up to you, although root crops like beets and carrots generally must be sown directly into the soil. Store-bought transplants are convenient, but I have found that they are more liable to bring pests along with them.
Step 2: Select a location. Find an area in your garden to plant your winter crops. You can use the space where some of your summer crops have already exhausted themselves. Maybe the cucumber patch? Or, if you're just now starting a garden, refer to a comprehensive gardening guide for advice. Minimally, you will want a place that is shielded from the wind and receives maximum sunlight (the south side of a structure receives the most light).
Step 3: Plant. Seeds should be planted at a depth about 3-4 times the diameter of the seed and kept moist for successful germination. For salad greens, radishes, and carrots, seeds should be spaced in rows about 5-6 inches apart with an inch in between each seed. You will be thinning these rows as the season progresses and you may eat the thinnings as you go. Refer to seed packages or catalogs for specifics on thinning.
Step 4: Protect. If you want to extend the harvest of your salad crops into the freezing temperatures of winter, think about simple solutions like row cover and cold frames. These tools create a more comfortable microclimate for your plants and protect them from the elements. For an excellent guide, check out “Four-Season Harvest” by Eliot Coleman.
Step 5: Harvest. Harvest whenever you want a fresh fall or winter salad.
For what it costs to buy a couple pounds of mesclun at the grocery, you can buy enough seeds to grow salad greens from now until next spring. And by following these easy steps, it should be a breeze. Enjoy!