STORY AND PHOTOS BY BILL THORNESS
[twocolumns]At long last, the first tomatoes are on the vine, the beans are coming in bushels, and friends are beginning to ooh and ahh over your burgeoning vegetable beds. So, what are you waiting for? Start planning for winter.
For many gardeners, the pinnacle of the edible gardening year is that balmy summer day when you can stroll the path in your shorts, noshing and waving the watering wand around like you’re the Good Witch of the West. But as surely as you’re not in Kansas, those warm days will wane, and with it your benevolent feelings.
There’s a cure for that plunge from edible abundance, though. It’s called cool-season gardening. And it starts now, at the height of the summer. As the warm season ends, so does the plentitude of the harvest. Fight back with fertilizer and mulch, then sprout a new batch of crops.
Succession planting is the fancy word for the technique of keeping the edible garden perpetually filled with plants. When it’s time to pull out a plant past its prime, be ready to rotate in some new crops. It can be that easy, but there are a few tips to make your succession plan more successful.
In Susan Casey’s garden at the Interbay P-Patch, succession is set by convenience. “I try to keep things simple,” she says. “My fava beans and Sugar Pod peas have finished up by the end of June,” so the bed gets mulched with their chopped-up plants and sits for five or six weeks. “I try to plant my winter greens before the full moon in late July or early August,” she says, “and I swear to God, four days later they are sprouting.”
Her diverse winter garden includes more than a dozen winter vegetables, including a few kinds of kale, collards, mustard greens, turnips, Chinese cabbages and broccoli. When they’re mostly spent by late May, she has a place for her summer vegetables. Then, when the corn or squash of summer have died back, around the end of October, she clears them out, plants fava beans in that bed, and the rotation cycle starts again.
To create your own simple rotation plan, look at the “time to maturity” for your favorite crops and use a calendar to see what plants will work in succession. For instance, if you pull the spring lettuce on July 1 and plant a 60-day beet variety, you will be eating beets by September 1. With a harvest period of 10-15 days, the bed can again be free by September 15. That leaves enough of the growing season to put in some kale or broccoli raab which, at 50-70 days, you could be harvesting for Thanksgiving. Add a bit of extra time for the “fall factor,” which takes into account a slower rate of growth due to days getting shorter and the occasional cold snap we might get.
Another way to tackle the planting calendar is to work backward from the last date that you can expect to get vegetables to ripen. For a tender crop like lettuce, consider your “first frost date” in the fall and count back from that. If, for instance, you’re likely to get frost by November 17 (find out the date for your area on the Dave’s Garden or Old Farmer’s Almanac websites), start with that date. You’ll be able to snip and graze from the lettuce for 10 days once it’s ready to harvest, so count back to November 7 for the maturity date, which begins the harvest period. The lettuce will slow down its growth a bit in the fall, so subtract another seven days for the fall factor, to October 31. The seed packet says 50 days to maturity, so count back to September 12 to get your sowing date.
Some vegetables are typically transplanted, so the days-to-maturity listing will be from transplant. For those crops, such as broccoli, add another 20-30 days to start the seeds and get them to transplant size. Or go to the nursery and buy transplant-ready starts on your calculated planting date.
Vary your plantings so that you will have some crops coming ripe in the fall, such as salad greens, and others for early winter, like root vegetables. A third category, “overwintering” plants, will be planted in summer and fall, and will hold on through winter as small, hardy plants that can withstand the cold. They will not grow robustly until winter wanes, so plan to eat those in early spring. Vegetables commonly overwintered in the maritime Northwest climate include Brassicas (kale, broccoli, cabbage) but also onions and favas.
While the Brassica genus delivers cool-season stars, not all crops (and not all varieties) are suitable for fall and winter growing. Clues to their winter-hardiness sometimes can be found in the names: Winter Density and Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce, for instance. Winterkeeper beets are obvious too, but Early Wonder Tall Top beets perform better in spring.
Purple Sprouting broccoli, Lacinato kale, and Black Spanish radish are all but guaranteed to impress your friends in mid-spring, when most people are eating from the supermarket and the freezer while waiting for their peas to sprout.
So as you prepare the first caprese salad of the summer, think ahead to what will fill the space in your garden bed, and in your gardener’s heart, when the glorious hot crops are no more.[/twocolumns]
Bill Thorness is the author of “Cool Season Gardener: Extend the Harvest, Plan Ahead, and Grow Vegetables Year Round,” released this spring by Skipstone Books.