Ann Wright: Sizzling cool season vegetables
As an early-September heat wave strikes, it’s a little odd to be thinking of planting cool season vegetables. But, as tomatoes are ripening and other fruits of the garden are ready to pick, days are growing shorter. With nights beginning to cool, it seems like fall may be knocking. And with sizzling temperatures now, this is the ideal time to consider a winter garden – because winter will come! Master Gardeners of Nevada County are offering the second session of the workshop, “Broccoli, Lettuce and Kale, Oh, My! Cool Season Vegetable Gardening” – today at 9 a.m., live on Zoom. Go to the website at http://ncmg.ucanr.org/ and click on the link to open the Zoom workshop. The session will be recorded for those unable to attend. The website also provides recordings of all Zoom workshops presented to date, including session one of Cool Season Vegetables.
In preparation for fall planting, now is a good time to select a section of the garden for some cool season vegetables, which can provide a bountiful supply of fresh greens, lettuce, radish and other nutritious vegetables throughout the season. In addition to enjoying your own fresh vegetables for a longer season, growing a winter garden generally takes less work than a summer garden. Watering won’t need to be done as often, weeds are less problematic and insect pests also decline in the winter.
In planning a winter garden, select a site that benefits from the warmest microclimates in the area. Planting along a south facing wall or next to the house or a structure that may reflect heat are ideal locations. Concentrate on a site that is protected from cold, dry wind. The key is to get started early enough for plants to become established and mature. (Mature plants can withstand cold temperatures better than younger plants.) Many of the plants considered cool season vegetables such as lettuces, leeks, onions, mâché and kale can survive temperatures into the teens or even single digits, once established, especially if given some protection. A well-hydrated plant will handle the cold better than one that is drought stressed. So, be prepared to water if there is an extended dry spell in the winter. Choosing beds that are protected from the prevailing winter wind will also help.
The next big step is figuring out what to grow – as Master Gardeners say, “grow what you like to eat”. There are lists of cool season vegetables in many gardening books and on the Master Gardener website. Some of the vegetables suggested for direct seeding include carrots, beets, lettuce, peas, spinach and Swiss chard. These cool season seeds can be sown anywhere from 15 to 60 days before the first frost. Remember, the first frost date will vary by elevation and local microclimates. Cauliflower and broccoli take a little longer to get started and may be transplanted from seed-starts, 45 to 105 days before the first frost. Kale will generally grow best 45 to 105 days before the first frost. Check seed packets or plant labels for specific directions as to when to plant in the late summer or early fall.
Once the plants are started either by seed or transplant, ensure they get adequate irrigation until it rains. Likewise, if there are tender starts in the blazing heat, some shade cloth should help prevent scorching of the delicate little plants.
To get a jump start with planting next spring, or to keep cool season vegetables protected during the winter, season extenders can be considered. Some common season extenders are tunnels with coverings either of plastic or cloth, cloches or hot caps, or cold frames. Larger hoop houses or greenhouses also provide a space for protection of potted plants or flats.
Many years ago, gardeners protected plants from late frost by covering each individual plant with a small oiled paper tent, or a jar made of glass, called a cloche or bell jar. Hot caps and bell jars are still used today although they are most commonly made of plastic. The concern with using these types of devices is that each covering must be removed on warm sunny days so the plants won’t fry.
With the development of breathable, protective non-woven fabric such as Agribon or Ag-Fabric plant blankets, plants can be protected from cold while allowing light, water and air to pass through the fabric. Using fabric over hoops either embedded into the ground or attached to a raised bed with PVC or metal tubing, tunnels are created with the fabric that can be clipped in place and the plants contained in the garden area. Cold frames are constructed of wood, with hinged glass covering. Generally cold frames are oriented with the long side running east-to-west. The south edge of the cold frame is typically placed lower than the north side to allow better access to low winter sun.
There are a number of ways to protect plants during the winter. Consult local nurseries or hardware stores for ideas. Many resources for season extenders can be found online, and on the Master Gardener’s website. Enjoy your sizzling, nutritious cool season vegetables!
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.
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