Kale growing

Edible Garden: May is the First Month of Next Winter

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May is the First Month of Next Winter When Planning a Year-Round Garden

STORY BY BILL THRONESS

Kale growing

As I gently shook the June Flamme out of the pot, roots and soil compacted firmly, I admired the sturdiness of the young tomato plant. Its robust health was a bit surprising because hanging on the edge of the soil was a Russian Red kale start, dangling from its own healthy root system.

The two plants were certainly an odd couple, and I blamed myself for them being roommates.

My tomato starts came, as they mostly do, from seed packets. In March, I slip the papery seeds into tiny soil “cells” in a seed flat. As they grow, I transplant them to four-inch and then gallon-sized pots. When I upsize to gallons, I use my own backyard compost, which is full of who-knows-what seeds that came along with the chopped garden debris. I’d saved seeds from that kale two years ago, and it’s been sprouting around the garden ever since.

This pot showed quite a pairing: the pinnacle of summer gardening with the stalwart that lords over the winter beds.

It was a good reminder: when those tomatoes go in the ground, start thinking about the winter garden.

Chart the Period of Origin

Seattle gardeners are blessed with an extended, forgiving spring and — after an often-too-short summer — a long autumn that blends into a mild winter. This unique climate generates many periods where we can calendar-in new plantings of our favorite cool-season crops.

Leeks and parsnips originated in central Asia. That’s their center of origin. But, if you want to get the best harvest of these cool-season stars, when do you plant them in your Maritime Northwest garden? To figure that out, I consider each crop’s “period of origin.” It’s a calculation based on our growing seasons combined with the length to maturity of each crop.

I get started in March with cool-season crops for spring, and in May, I add the long-season cool crops. Then I segue into root crops, follow that with second plantings of cool crops for fall, and finally sow the overwintering crops. It can get a bit challenging, between starting seeds in flats, buying nursery starts, and directly sowing seeds in the ground. Best to bite off a little bit at a time because, pardon the paraphrase, that’s how you eat an elephant garlic.

Court the Calendar

I consider May to be the first month of next winter, so let’s start here. To figure out when to plant the various winter crops, I need to hold four complementary ideas in my head:

1. How long the plant will take to grow to maturity

2. Whether the crop is sown directly in the garden or started in flats and transplanted

3. Whether I expect to harvest in fall or keep the plants in the garden into winter

4. Whether I intend the crop to “over-winter” and put on most of its growth next spring

Seed catalogs and tags on nursery starts identify good varieties for winter and tell you the days to maturity. But even that is a little tricky. Crops that are routinely sown directly into the soil, like root vegetables, will list their days to maturity from sowing seeds. However, for crops that are routinely transplanted, their “days listing” will be from the transplant date (unless the seller tells you otherwise).

For instance, parsnips are a root crop that are direct-sown. I like the smooth-skinned Javelin variety, which is listed at 110 days. Leeks, an allium whose crisp, mild stem can substitute for onions in a winter dish, are routinely transplanted. One of my favorites for overwintering, the heirloom Giant Musselburgh, is listed at 105 days.

Leeks take forever to “size up” from seed (or at least it seems that way). You want them to be pencil-lead size before transplanting, which can take 8–10 weeks. So if I sow them by May 15, I won’t be transplanting them into the garden until mid-July or later. Then I count those 105 days (three and a half months), which brings me to the third week of October. That’s a great time for them to mature, and if I tuck a little straw mulch around their tops, they will hold in the soil well into winter.

If I want to overwinter this variety, I can start the seeds in August and plant them out in late September. They’ll not grow much until February. Perhaps count the fall/winter growth as 15–20 of their 105 days, so expect to begin harvesting these leeks in May.

Parsnips also try my patience (although they too are worth it). Their seeds can take three weeks to sprout — and longer if conditions are not perfect (warm soil and consistent moisture). But I will count 110 days from the time the seed touches soil and, again using May 15 as a planting date, calculate that my parsnips should be harvestable by the first part of September.

Now, I prefer parsnips roasted on cold winter nights, when the smell emanating from the oven chases away the gloom of short days and little gardening. And the roots are sweeter after they’ve been chilled by some of those cold winter nights. So that harvest date might be a bit early. In this case, it might be better to work backward on the calendar. From mid-October, 110 days brings me to June 25. Since parsnips are finicky sprouters, I’ll hedge my bets by planting in succession over a few weeks, ending on that date.

Think Past Summer

October 15 is a good target maturity date for winter vegetables. They’ve made the best of our short summer, and there’s still plenty of glorious autumn. But growth slows down greatly after that date, as the days shorten and the nights are cooler. So it’s good to have your winter vegetables reach “full frame” by mid-October. The winter broccoli should be its ultimate height, although it won’t yet have put out its sprouts or buds. The cabbage should be a bowl of dense, layered leaves, swelling noticeably at the center. The leeks should be full height, with plenty of white stem, and the parsnip tops should be bushy, with the shoulders of the root showing.

Does it matter if your garden doesn’t reach this Eden-like vision? Not entirely. The leeks don’t always cooperate, and are sometimes half-sized by fall. Given a good mulch and babied through the winter, you could still have a fine, smallish crop, but you won’t be eating them until mid-spring, and you’ll have to catch them before they go to seed.

If you combine the days to maturity with a goal of fully formed plants by October 15, you can grow a lot of food for fall and winter. You just have to start thinking about it now, as your head is filled with visions of ripe tomatoes.

Bill Thorness is the author of Cool Season Gardener and Edible Heirlooms. He is a Master Gardener in King County and has overwintered in fleece mulch in Seattle since the mid-1980s. See more of his work at coolseasongardener.com.

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