- Author: Margaret J O'Neill
With these cooler temperatures and shorter days come cool season gardens. Cool season gardens that grow in the fall and winter are sometimes less celebrated than spring and summer (warm season) gardens, but they can be just as fun and yield more nutritious produce than our warm season garden.
Our warm season gardens yield lots of delicious and wonderful fruits (the part of the plant that has the seeds), and they are yummy for sure! Our cool season gardens give us lots of edible leaves and stems and roots packed full of vitamins and minerals that we don't get from our warm season garden. So, if you are skipping your cool season garden and waiting until next spring, you are missing the most nutritious gardening time of the year! Here are some tips for success for your cool season garden, and don't forget we offer lots of free classes online (http://mgsb.ucanr.edu/) each month and our helpline is just a call or email away!
- Select the right location: Most veggies take at least 6 hours of sunlight, so check your spot and make sure they will get enough light. The sun starts to go south in the winter, so the shadows in your yard and on your patio change. Track the sunlight for a day in the area you want to plant, watch for shadows and see if there are trees or fences on the south side that may cast a shadow later in the year, in the middle of winter. Veggies can thrive planted directly in the soil, in raised beds or in pots so you do not need a lot of space to have a cool season veggie garden. Don't forget as you are planning your spot to think about vertebrate pests like gophers….they love your cool season veggies just as much as you do, and are often very active in the spring and fall. Plan ahead and contact our Master Gardener helpline if you have questions on how to protect your crops! Remember that having accessible water close by is also very important unless you have the time and energy to carry buckets full of water back and forth since you can't always count on Mother Nature.
- Deciding what to plant: Plant a rainbow of color, plant what you and your family like to eat, and try a few things that you and your family don't like to eat since home grown veggies have a completely different taste than veggies from the store! They are often sweeter and more flavorful, so if you don't like it but have never tried it home grown then give it a try. Some cool season veggies are: carrots, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, radishes, cauliflower, celery, chives, endive, fava beans, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, spinach, swiss chard and turnips, just to name a few! Herbs also grown year-round. Fall is a great time to start cilantro along with many other herbs to compliment your edible vegetable garden. If you live in the mountains you have a really short cool season veggie window, so be sure to select varieties that are “early ripening” so you can get them harvested before the really cold weather comes.
- Preparing your soil: When it comes to growing veggies, you want to have nice and fluffy soil. Many root veggies like a soft soil so they can grow correctly, and the rest of the veggies don't mind it either! Amend your soil with compost to help improve drainage in heavy soils and improve water retention in sandy soils. Add at least two inches of compost and dig it in to the first 6” or so of soil. Don' forget that while compost is great and adds lots of wonderful microorganisms to the mix, it is pretty low on nutrients, so it's not a substitute for fertilizer!
- Fertilizer: Veggies in general are heavy feeders and should be fed regularly to produce a good crop. Generally it's a good idea to fertilize the soil when you plant them. (This isn't usually true of fruit trees, flowers or ornamental landscape plants though so don't do that to all of your plants: more is not always better). Then fertilize approximately every 4 to 6 weeks, depending on your soil and the crop you have planted. A good rule of thumb for growing veggies in pots is to fertilize them half as much twice as often since they are more susceptible to burning than in-ground plants.
- Mulch…mulch and more mulch!! Adding a mulch layer on top of the soil around your garden plants is so important during the summer to retain soil moisture, conserve water, and keep soil temperature cool but it is also important in the cool season, too. Mulch helps keep weeds down when you add at least 3 to 4” and will help keep the soil temperature from getting too cold in the cooler parts of the year. Be sure to keep your mulch at least 6 inches away from the trunks of your trees and away from the stems of your veggies by at least an inch or two. Don't forget if you are going to much and you want weed control that you need to apply a thick layer (3 to 4”). A thin layer can actually encourage weed seed germination. Mulch is not just for plants in the ground either! It can be used in pots as well and has all the same benefits. Just be sure if you have a nice layer of mulch on the ground or in your pots to keep in mind the type of fertilizer you are using. A granular or pellet fertilizer should be applied to the surface of the soil, a liquid fertilizer can be applied over the mulch as long as it is watered in well. When in doubt, pull the mulch back, or call our helpline and we can help you decide how to best apply your fertilizer.
- Watering: Water is just as important to cool season crops as it is to warm season crops, especially since many of the cool season crops we enjoy are water-filled leaves. Though it is just as important, there are a few different things to think about. The humidity is often higher in the winter, so you need to keep moisture off leaves to prevent the spread of pathogens like molds and mildews. This can be done by using drip irrigation systems, or carefully hand watering, and by watering in the morning to prevent moisture from sitting on the leaves of your plants for too long. You also need to think about how hot it is and how much rain we have had, so it is a dynamic situation! Not sure if you need to water? When in doubt, stick your finger in the soil or dig down a bit for deeper rooting veggies and see if the soil is wet. You can always contact our Master Gardener helpline if you have watering questions or concerns.
- Thinking of seed saving? That's great!! There are lots of reasons to save seeds, from saving money, to creatinglocally grown variety, to preserving special or favorite varieties of veggies, and we are here to help! We offer monthly seed saving classes to teach you everything you need to know from the basics to advanced plant breeding techniques. Many cool season veggies cross breed easily so you must plan a little when you are seed saving. Tune into our “Planning your Cool Season Seed Garden” class to learn more….and if that sounds intimidating, don't worry! There are many cool season veggies that are easy to seed save from, like lettuce, radishes, and peas.
- Don't forget about our bugs! The good ones and the not so good for us ones alike (I hate to use the term “bad bugs,” since they are just doing their thing, even if we don't like it!)! There are many cool season (fall and winter) flowers that will do well and provide habitat and food sources for our beneficial insects that help us keep the bugs we don't want in check in our gardens. Don't forget to stop and properly identify your problem before you spray for “pests” as well! Ask yourself “is this pest going to damage my crops? Is it from an actual insect or disease or is it more likely due to watering issue or a change in the weather? Most garden problems are not from insects or diseases. Always remember to use cultural management practices and avoid chemical pesticides in your home garden. Visit our UC ANR Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site to learn more about how to identify and handle your problems: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/. You can search by pest or by plant and they have lots of great photos. Some pests might look “bad” but will cause little damage, and might actually be beneficial for the environment, so investigate before you treat. That helps reduce pollution, saves you money and helps keep your home ecosystem balanced and healthy. Lastly, the pest that caused the damage may be long gone, making proper identification of pests and abiotic (non-living) disorders key!
- Fruit trees? This a good time to be thinking about planting new deciduous fruit trees such as low-chill apples, plums, pears, and cherries since bare-root specimens are best planted in late December to early February. (Citrus and avocados are best planted in spring or fall.) There are many varieties of deciduous fruit to choose from based on the number of chill hours they need and how many chill hours your location has. Check out this website to find information on chill hours for your area: http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/Weather_Services/chilling_accumulation_models/. You can also choose varieties that ripen successively throughout the year so you can extend your harvest season and you can look for varieties that do well in your specific soil conditions and climate.
- Last, but not least? Natives! Fall is the time to get your native plants and seeds in the ground! This is the time of year they would start coming up naturally and when planted in the fall they will have a much better success rate next summer!
These are the basics you need to think of when planning your cool season veggie garden, and with a little bit of thought and planning, it can be just as delicious, colorful and rewarding as your warm season garden! We are always here to support you through your journey with our monthly free classes, our online “Ask a Master Gardener” time, and our helpline, which is just a call or email away! We will answer your questions and give you moral support when you have challenges. Let us be your cheerleaders and champion and guide you to create the best cool season vegetable garden ever…and don't worry, mistakes will be made….failures will occur…but just like in life, that is how we learn and grow😊