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Digging a Winter Garden

I always feel odd when using “winter” and “Southern California” in the same sentence. What passes for winter here is really a slightly chilly spring in most northern climes. The winter months — chilly, slightly frosty and even warm at times — are one of the most glorious gardening times of the year. The rains arrive with a certain predictability and go away, leaving us with deeply watered soil and bright dry days to plant a whole range of wonderful plants. It may seem odd to be thinking winter when we have triple-digit temperatures. However, the weather will cool soon enough and now is the time to start thinking about buying and starting winter seed crops, such as:

  • Leafy greens: Lettuces (use bolt-resistant varieties), mache, chicory, spinach, frisee, Swiss chard, arugula and mesclun mixes
  • Onions: Green bunching, Spanish, shallots, cippolini, sweet Maui, white and red
  • Leeks: Lancelot
  • Garlic: Red Silverskin, Giant white California, Chesnook Red
  • Peas: Mammoth, Green Arrow, Oregon sugar pod
  • Fava beans: Broad Windsor
  • Sweet peas: Cupani, Spencer varieties, Bijou (dwarf)
  • Cabbages: Savoy, red, curled and Napa
  • Broccoli: Goliath, Packman and Purple Sprouting
  • Broccoli Raab: Cima di Rapa, Super Rapini and Sorrento
  • Cauliflower: Snowball, Romanesco and Purple Cape
  • Choi: Bok Choi and Tatsoi
  • Kale: Lacinato, Nero di Toscana and Russian red
  • Mustard: Curled mustard, Osaka red
  • Radicchio: Chioggio, Tardivo and di Treviso
  • Root vegetables: Carrots, radish, turnips, rutabagas, beets and parsnips
  • Celery: Self-Blanching, Golden Pascal
  • Fennel: Florentine
  • Artichoke: Green Globe, Desert Globe and Imperial Star
  • Asparagus: Green and red varietals
  • Cool season herbs: Parsley (curled and flat leaf) and cilantro

The season officially begins Nov 1. This is my determination. Planting cool-season crops before this date can be problematic as October is known for sudden spikes in heat. If this happens, you risk an entire crop bolting and going to seed prematurely. It is best to be patient, a virtue lost on many gardeners. Wait until nighttime temps are consistently 50 degrees or below.

Preparing the soil

Thorough soil preparation is vital. Growing a green manure or cover crop in between the summer and winter crop is an ideal way to condition the growing beds. A cover crop is grown from seed until it is at the green-seed state, i.e., no viable seeds on the plant. The crop is dug into the soil and acts as a supplier of organic biomass, provides supplemental nitrogen (especially if you grow a leguminous crop such as Austrian Field Peas), and a source of food for the healthy microbial load in the soil. After digging in, the earth will be ready for planting winter starts in approximately four weeks.

There are the old tried-and-true vegetable favorites that should be grown every year. If it works, why change? However, every season there will always be something new and interesting to plant. Reading the latest seed catalogues and gardening blogs, watching current TV gardening shows and subscribing to a few gardening magazines should keep you in the loop. Traveling overseas can also lead to new discoveries, and many foreign seed companies have franchises in North America. Growing from seed is a very satisfying way to garden. In Southern California, it is possible to plant almost everything directly into the ground, and between transplanting and thinning out the seedlings, one can develop healthy starts within five to six weeks.

All root crops must be seed planted, and the earlier the better. Carrots especially are happiest in fine, deep rich loam free of stones. The earlier you start, the more crop succession possibilities you can have.  Planting every six weeks will provide a constant supply all winter long.

Dealing with pests

A few pest problems can occur, and in general the crops will survive most of the attacks. However, some organic solutions are possible. BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a safe way to control cabbage white larvae that can decimate brassicas. This natural bacterium is applied in powder form to kill emerging larva. One other common pest is the aphid. Ladybugs will take care of the matter swiftly if you have not used any chemical sprays. If aphids are present, you can also buy ladybugs at a garden center and release them in the evening under the plant that is infested. They will happily reside in your garden as long as the aphid buffet is open for business. A short blast of water from a hose will also help get rid of a heavy aphid population. Slugs and snails are controllable with beer traps, diatomaceous earth and copper strips on raised beds.

Winter gardening is a real pleasure.  No hot weather to contend with, natural rainfall to help your plants grow and the joy of a fresh garden salad is an unequaled sensory experience.


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Freshly picked salad greens. John Lyons

Seed companies worth supporting this season
Seeds of Change

Seed Savers Exchange

Renee’s Garden

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply

Franchi Seeds