Keep the garden going: Stretching the seasons with fall and winter veggies

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As I write this, it’s mid-August, and my vegetable garden has the crazy look it always does this time of year—overflowing its boundaries here, bare and shorn there, roiling with weeds in more places than not. We’re getting food out of it (zucchini, peppers, hey-need-some-basil?) but it’s not that pretty to look at, and it’s definitely beyond our control. Yet one area in my garden is tidy and polite, like the neat rows of spring. It’s the zone where I’ve planted my fall crops.

Planting seeds in late summer always feels counterintuitive to me. Who wants to take on more gardening work at a time when the garden is already overwhelming? But as surely as the frost will arrive, these blowsy plants of summer will meet their end. And when that time comes, it’ll be good to know that something else is set to take their place.

We hadn’t considered year-round gardening until, some years ago, a friend gave us a copy of Eliot Coleman’s book Four-Season Harvest. We didn’t know from cold frames then, but we soon got on board with Coleman’s recommendations: Plant certain crops and protect them well, and you can harvest fresh food at any time of year. If Coleman can grow salad in Maine in January, we figured, we can do it in Virginia.

We’ve never quite mastered Coleman’s full program—which includes large greenhouses—but we have enacted our own simpler version of it for a number of years now.

The fall and winter garden begins with seeds in July (or early August, if you’re disorganized like me; or with purchased plant starts if you’re even further behind). You can grow many of the brassicas—especially kale and collards, but cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, and cauliflower are all worth a try, too—in the cool months of fall. And try seeding lettuce, tatsoi, chard, scallions, beets, and turnips: anything that doesn’t take terribly long to mature and prefers cooler temps.

As fall moves along, you can plant winter crops. We built some small cold frames—which are essentially wooden boxes with hinged glass lids—and use them to shelter the salad crops that we learned about from Coleman: claytonia, mizuna, and mache (that last one is so hardy it can grow unprotected, surviving even through snowstorms). Arugula does well under cold frames too, and so do carrots, though they present other challenges in this clay-rich region.

Whether or not you tend plants during the cold months, winter is the time for all veggie gardeners to start dreaming of spring’s perennial fresh start. If you’ve ever bought seeds through a catalog or website, your data has been circulating and your mailbox will burgeon with beautifully photographed horticultural temptations just after New Year’s. (My favorite seed companies: Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.) Choose whichever varieties you want—Swiss Giant Zermatt leeks, anyone?—but if you’re a beginner, pick some easy winners. Green beans grow fast. Basil is prolific. And if you have a few years to wait, planting perennial asparagus crowns is a great investment in future spring ecstasy.

You can start seeds in flats, beginning in late winter, or directly in the soil in early spring. Either way, mixing some rich compost into your soil (we’ve long been devotees of Earlysville-produced Panorama Paydirt) will greatly improve your chances of success.

Give it a try, even if you just have a little sunny space. There’s nothing like a veggie garden to let you know you’re alive.

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