Anyone can find wisdom within these low-maintenance gardening tips, so you can bring homegrown produce to the table all year long!
Though some seasons offering easier growing and harvest than others, certain produce remains undaunted when it gets cold outside.
With 40 years of gardening experience under her belt, Linda Gilkeson has written Backyard Bounty (New Society Publishers, 2011), a guide chock-full of down-to-earth advice for Pacific Northwest gardeners. Whether a novice or seasoned grower, looking to start a garden or grow more in the one you have, and no matter where you live, this book offers adaptable tips on garden planning, soil preparation, growing healthy seedlings, and simple pruning and planting guides. Make gardening less challenging and less time-consuming with this seasonal wisdom and these practical tips.
You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: Backyard Bounty.
The crop schedule and harvest notes in this chapter are for the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest — extending from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland on the south coast of British Columbia to Washington and northern Oregon, west of the Cascade Mountains. In the warmest microclimates and more southerly parts of this region, spring planting can be a couple of weeks earlier than shown here; dates for planting overwintered crops can be up to two weeks later because crops will have a longer growing period in the fall.
You will be making judgment calls every year, but over time you will fine tune these planting schedules to suit your garden’s microclimate(s). The coastal spring weather is so variable that you should be prepared to handle rapid changes in weather. Be ready to cover plants in a late cool spell and to mulch and shade them in an early heat wave.
Once you establish a year-round garden, you won’t need to battle unpredictable spring weather to get an early start for many crops. There will be plenty to harvest from the garden from March through May. Overwintered lettuce, kale, spinach, Swiss chard and other greens grow new crops of leaves as the days warm and lengthen. Remaining leeks, carrots, beets, celeriac and other roots left in the garden will be in good condition until April. Purple sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflower produce heads from late February through May. Indoors, you could still have potatoes, winter squash, onions, garlic and apples if they have been stored well. In fact, I often have to make a point of using up the last of these in July.
So, go ahead and try planting early peas and potatoes in March if the weather permits, but don’t worry about getting an early start for a lot of other crops. If you wait until the soil warms up, it is a lot easier to get a good stand of seedlings. It also avoids the chance that some will go to seed prematurely if there is a period of cool weather.
If you are growing your own transplants, the main planting task for spring is starting seedlings. Otherwise, plan the garden, get your supply of seeds and soil amendments, and enjoy the harvest of overwintered crops.
For coastal gardeners, the best indicator of when to plant is the soil temperature. Pull back the mulch on beds where you plan to sow spring crops so the soil warms up and dries out. Wait until the soil is 50–60 degrees F (10–15 degrees C) to sow most seeds, even warmer for beans and corn.
To get a jump on the season, start peas, beans and corn indoors 3 weeks ahead of planting dates. Peas and bean are easy to pre-sprout in vermiculite; doing so gets the seedlings safely past the danger of pests and diseases.
Set out squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, melons and sweet basil after the weather seems to have stabilized in a warm summer pattern. Because the coastal spring is usually long and cool, this might not be until early June in some years. If you set plants out earlier, be prepared to protect them from a late cool spell, which would stop their growth.
To hasten sowing and transplanting dates, warm the soil by laying a sheet of clear plastic flat on the soil surface for a couple of weeks before planting. After planting, cover beds with floating rows covers, plastic tunnels or cover plants with cloches.
Carrots, beets and parsnips: Roots still in the garden start to grow again in the spring. When they do, they begin using up the stored sugars in their roots, so quality deteriorates the longer they stay in the garden. Root crops are usually fine up to early April, but can start growing in late March in warmer years. To preserve quality, dig up any remaining roots by April 1 and store them in a refrigerator. They won’t grow any larger in the spring anyway, no matter how long you leave them in the ground because they are preparing to put their energy into flowering.
Leeks: Lift remaining leeks in April and refrigerate them — or just leave them in the garden. They will grow a seed stalk as the spring progresses. The stalk is tender and edible at first, so the whole leek can still be used. Once the stalk begins to toughen up, you can simply remove it (split the leek down the middle and lift out the stalk) before using the rest of the leek.
Leafy greens: Overwintered leafy greens usually grow quickly in April. By the end of the month, there may be too much to keep up with, so pull surplus plants to make room for new crops.
You can leave spinach, kale, chard and parsley in the garden even though they begin to develop seed stalks in the spring. The leaves that grow along the seed stalk are fine to eat.
Winter broccoli and cauliflower: No matter how battered these plants were by winter winds or heavy snow, as long as the stems weren’t broken, they will recover. The plants grow new leaves and then form heads. The earliest purple sprouting broccoli varieties start heading in February. Later varieties start in April and continue producing useful shoots well into June.
• Start seeds indoors if you can provide good growing conditions: leeks, onions from seed, celeriac and celery.
• Sow broad beans outdoors if you didn’t plant them last fall.
• Finish pruning fruit trees, bushes, and kiwi and grape vines (you can plan on pruning the grapes last, because they leaf out later than other plants).
• Gardeners in British Columbia: Attend your local Seedy Saturday to buy, sell and swap seeds, hear speakers, and view displays. Most communities hold them on a Saturday in February (a few are in early March).
• Start seeds indoors if you can provide good growing conditions: indeterminate (tall) tomatoes, peppers and eggplants should be started now; also start summer cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli for early planting.
• Sow lettuce, spinach, arugula, leaf mustard and other salad greens in the garden if you don’t have them as overwintered crops.
• Peas: Sprout seeds in vermiculite for planting outdoors in 3 weeks, or sow directly in the garden if soil has warmed to 54 degrees F (12 degrees C).
• Onions: Plant onion sets outdoors at the end of the month. The best sets are smaller than a dime — larger ones may bolt to seed (use them as early scallions).
• Potatoes: Set a few seed potatoes on the windowsill to develop dark green sprouts. Plant them outdoors in late March for the earliest crop of potatoes. Protect early emerging sprouts from late frosts: hill up the soil over the sprouts or cover with mulch or plastic sheets.
• Set out strawberry plants and asparagus roots.
• Plant fruit trees, grapes, blueberries, raspberries and other small fruit bushes, if you didn’t do it in November.
• Finish pruning grapes.
• First week of April, dig any carrots, beets or celeriac roots still in the garden and refrigerate.
• If you can provide good growing conditions indoors, start seeds of summer and winter squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons, sweet basil and determinate (bush) tomatoes.
• Plant more peas, potatoes and onion sets.
• Plant fruit trees and bushes that have either been growing in containers or that have a good soil ball in burlap (avoid bare root stock, even if available, as it will be in poor condition by this time of year).
• By the end of April, start bean seeds in vermiculite and the first planting of sweet corn in individual small pots.
• The first week: plant onion and leek seedlings.
• Sow summer beets, carrots, radishes, more lettuce and other greens, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage and kale.
• Sow parsnips for fall and winter harvests.
• Sow more peas and plant more potatoes.
• Set out cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli transplants or sow them directly in the garden.
• Plant out pre-sprouted beans and sweet corn seedlings started in April.
• Start another planting of sweet corn indoors or sow outdoors if the soil is warm.
• Last week of May, sow Brussels sprouts and winter cabbages in garden or seed flats.
• By the end of the month, if weather is stable and warm, set out tomatoes and summer and winter squash plants.
The delicacies available in the summer harvest make this the most wonderful time of year in the garden. Fresh peas and beans, tender summer squash, tomatoes, sweet corn, artichokes, strawberries and early tree fruit add to the bounty of salad greens, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, Swiss chard, sweet onions and fresh herbs.
But it isn’t all about harvesting: mid- to late summer is also the time to plant the vegetables you will feast upon next winter.
Mulch management: As the typical dry summer weather pattern along the coast starts to form in June, begin mulching the soil around the largest plants. Along the foggy, cool outer coast, wait until the end of June to allow soil to warm up before mulching.
Summer pruning: Keeping order among the fruit and vegetables is an ongoing task over the summer. Pinch out shoots of grapes and kiwi, rub off watersprouts forming on fruit tree branches, snap off tomato “suckers.”
Succession planting: Sow vegetables that mature quickly (lettuce, radishes, salad greens, Chinese cabbage) at 3- or 4-week intervals over the summer months as spaces open up in the garden. Sowing bush beans, peas and sweet corn two or three times, 3 weeks apart, spreads out the period of prime harvest.
Sow winter crops to fill your living refrigerator: Most vegetables harvested over the winter are started in the summer. Think of the winter garden as a living refrigerator: plants don’t grow, but they keep in perfect condition for months because they are still alive. Since plants grow so little from November to February, what you are going to eat then has to have grown to full size by the end of October.
Keep a planting schedule handy to remind you when to sow each crop. I also find it useful to keep all the seed packets for these later plantings together in one container. Here are main summer planting windows for winter vegetables:
• July 1st to mid-July: carrot, beets and other roots.
• Late July to mid-August: leafy greens like kale, chard, spinach, mustard and Chinese cabbage.
• Late August to early-September: winter lettuce and corn salad. If you didn’t start plants from seeds in time, you may be able to buy transplants of kale, Swiss chard, winter lettuce and other greens, as well as winter varieties of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Just make sure the supplier is selling “winter hardy” varieties.
If you miss these dates and sow too late, seedlings will usually be too small by the time growth stops in the fall to provide much of a harvest. All is not lost, however, because surviving seedlings resume growing from late February onward and still produce much earlier crops than you would get from a spring sowing.
New potatoes: About 10–12 weeks after planting, or when the potato plants flower, the first new potatoes are ready. (Note: not all potato plants flower.) Dig the whole plant or carefully rummage around the roots and pull off a few tubers, leaving the plant to continue growing.
Garlic and onions: Garlic planted the previous fall and onions from sets mature in July. Onions from seedlings take until late August or September to mature. It helps both kinds of bulbs to mature if you stop watering for 1 or 2 weeks before harvest, but it isn’t mandatory. Onions and soft-neck garlic are ready to harvest when the tops have fallen over and the neck of the bulb is quite withered at the soil line. Hard-neck (Rocambole) garlic is ready to harvest when the outermost layers of the bulb are dry and papery.
• Sow succession plantings of sweet corn and bush beans up to the end of the month, indoors if it is cool, directly in the garden if the soil is warm.
• Plant more peas, lettuce and other salad greens.
• Early June, set out celery and celeriac plants (set these out when the weather is settled to avoid risk of plants going to seed).
• By June 10, sow winter cabbage varieties that mature quickly (80–100 days to harvest).
• From mid- to late June, sow winter broccoli and winter cauliflower. If you have the space, seed them directly where they will grow or start them in flats or seedling beds and transplant them in July.
• By late June, harvest earliest varieties of garlic.
• Thin tree fruit around the end of the month after the “June drop.”
• Continue pruning and training grapes and kiwi vines.
• First week of July: Mark the holiday by sowing a large bed of carrots for harvest all winter. Also sow beets, rutabagas and winter radish.
• Sow radicchio, kohlrabi and leaf beet.
• Plant out purple sprouting broccoli, winter cauliflower and cabbage seedlings.
• Harvest garlic and onions that grew from sets.
• Last week of July/first week of August: Sow fall lettuce, kale, Chinese greens, spinach, sweet onions, scallions, mustards and other leafy greens to overwinter for early spring crops.
• Continue pruning and training grapes and kiwi vines; thin clusters of grapes.
• Finish sowing hardy leafy greens for winter and sweet onions for early spring.
• By the end of the month, sow corn salad, arugula, cilantro and winter lettuce in beds or broadcast the seeds under vines of squash and other warm-season crops.
• Continue pruning and training grapes and kiwi vines (it never stops!).
This is the time of year to finish harvesting the main warm-season vegetables and tree fruit and to prepare the hardy vegetables for winter in the garden. If you have a greenhouse or sturdy tunnel, fill it with hardy lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and other greens. You can transplant full-grown plants from other parts of the garden to make the most of this protected space.
To prepare the garden for winter, cover exposed soil with leaves, straw or other mulch to protect it from erosion by heavy rain and to control weeds. However, don’t spread compost or manure on the garden at this time of year. The rain leaches the nutrients away (polluting water bodies with nitrogen), and it is too cold for nutrients to be available to plants or for the plants to use them.
Garlic: Garlic is much more productive when planted in the fall because it gives the roots time to develop over the winter. You might see small green shoots come up anytime from late fall onward; these are extremely hardy and won’t be damaged by frost.
Prepare new ground: Prepare for next season’s garden expansion by laying down thick layers of newspapers, cardboard, tarps or mulches to kill grass and weeds. By spring, the sod will be dead and easy to dig in, leaving valuable organic matter in place.
Winter squash: Harvest mature winter squash and pie pumpkins when the vines mature (leaves begin to die back, the skin of the squash feels hard, and the stem is shriveled and drying). Winter squash and pumpkins can survive light fall frosts, but if a frost is expected, it is better to cover the plants or harvest the fruit and bring it indoors. Cure the squash for at least 10 days in warm, dry conditions to seal the skin.
Potatoes: Main crop potatoes are ready in September or when vines start to die back. Harvest on a dry day and spread the tubers in the sun for a couple of hours to dry, or spread them on newspapers on the floor of a shed. Store the unblemished tubers in cool conditions in complete darkness.
Tomatoes for later: Before a killing frost damages the fruit, pick mature green tomatoes to ripen over the next couple of months. Store them in cool conditions and bring a few at a time to room temperature to ripen. Alternatively, pull up whole plants before frost and hang them in a garage or shed to allow fruit to ripen.
Pears and kiwi fruit: Most winter pears and kiwi fruit are ready to pick from late September to early October. For the best quality and storage ability, don’t let the fruit ripen on the tree. Pears are ready to pick when the stem on the fruit snaps cleanly from the branch when the fruit is lifted up. The skin of the fuzzy kiwi will be brown, without a green tinge; hardy kiwi (the one with small, grape-like fruit) remains green, but usually one or two soften on the vine, showing that all the rest are ready to pick.
Stockpile mulches: Collect as many fall leaves as you can. Use them for mulch around plants, and stockpile more in bins to decompose over the winter to make leaf mold. While you are at it, store a supply for next summer’s mulch, but keep the leaves dry in plastic bags or in covered bins so they don’t decompose. Where residents put out bagged leaves on the curb for pickup, cruise the neighborhood and pick them up.
Bales of straw are usually cheaper in the fall than at other times of the year, so it is a good time to buy what you need for next summer’s mulch. Leave the bale in the rain all winter to begin to break down; turn it occasionally to smother any seedlings that sprout.
Start mulching: For winter vegetables, mulching is not optional! Mulches keep the “shoulders” of root crops from freezing (and then rotting). Mulches also insulate the soil, which prevents wet soil from turning to ice and heaving up the top layers of soil and tearing the fine roots of plants (called “frost heave”). Mulch also helps keep the soil warm, so roots are still able to take up water in cold weather.
Fluffy mulches are best for winter protection: you can use leaves, straw, bracken fern, shredded corn stalks, or any other materials you can get a hold of. Start mulching in November by working a 6-inch (20-cm) deep layer of mulch around the base of plants.
Organize crop covers: For most of the winter on the coast, aboveground vegetables will be fine in the garden without covers. In the coldest gardens and when there is the occasional cold snap, however, prepare to cover leafy greens. They will survive with less damage if they are covered at least temporarily until the weather warms up. For a quick cover, you can use sheets of plastic or tarps weighed down with rocks or boards.
Brace for wind: Fall and winter windstorms on the coast are particularly damaging to cabbage family plants. These big, top heavy plants are easily blown down, especially in the soggy, wet soil. In areas where heavy, wet snow falls, the weight of the snow also pulls over leafy plants. Drive three or four garden stakes around each stem to keep the plants from breaking during wind storms. Bamboo, wood or coated metal flower supports work fine. Tomato cages also work if you are careful not to break the plant leaves when installing the cage (you can wrap a tea towel around the leaves and gently pull the leaves inward until you work the cage down around the plant).
• The first week of September is the last date you can still sow corn salad and winter lettuce in the warmest areas. It is too late to sow anything else, but if you can find transplants to buy, and it is a warm fall, you might grow a small crop of hardy leafy greens. If they don’t produce much, leave them in the garden and they should give you have a head start on the spring season.
• Harvest winter squash (some may have been ready in August) and bring them indoors to cure.
• Dig potatoes when the tops begin to die down.
• Show off your produce at the local agricultural fair.
• In early October, pinch growing tips out of Brussels sprout plants to hasten development of sprouts.
• Sow broad beans.
• By early October, harvest winter pears and kiwi fruit.
• Dig mature plants of Swiss chard, leaf beet, kale and other greens — retaining plenty of soil around the roots — and replant under tunnels or in unheated greenhouses.
• Plant garlic by the end of the month.
• Dig agricultural lime into empty beds where vegetables will be planted next spring. This gives the lime more time to start working. (This can be done in the spring as well).
• Clear crop debris from the garden and compost it or chop it up and use as mulch to protect the soil over the winter.
• Cover compost bins and manure piles so they shed rain over the winter.
• Move potted citrus and tender herbs to protected sites. Where more than two degrees of frost is likely in the winter, move plants into an unheated greenhouse or cool sun porch. Where frosts are rare, plants can stay in a sheltered site outdoors, but be prepared to cover them or move them indoors temporarily if there is an unusual cold snap.
• Plant fruit trees, grapes, blueberries and other fruit so roots will become established before spring.
• Put on the first 6-inch (20-cm) layer of mulch around all overwintering plants.
• Mulch empty garden beds to control weeds and protect the soil from erosion.
For the mid-winter months, there is no weeding, watering, sowing or planting to do, but there is the task of protecting crops from extreme weather. And, of course, harvesting continues for fresh salad greens, sweet and crisp carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other crops.
More mulch: In December, add another layer of mulch, especially to beds of root crops. Make sure the roots are well covered up, which means mulching right over the foliage. The foliage of celeriac is too tall to cover, so pile mulch well up over the tops of the roots; mulch kohlrabi well above the bulb.
Temporary covers: The most damaging winter weather is the very rare extreme cold period with high winds and no snow. If temperatures are forecast to drop below 23 degrees F (−5 degrees C), lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and other leafy greens will suffer less damage if they are covered. Weigh the covers down well with stones or boards because high winds usually accompany the Arctic outbreaks of polar air. Try to keep water or heavy snow from building up on the plastic for too long.
If it looks like it will dip below 14 degrees F (−10 degrees C), cover winter broccoli and cauliflower and the less hardy varieties of leeks. The hardiest varieties of Brussels sprouts, leeks, as well as corn salad, parsley and most kales are hardy to well below this.
Effects of extreme cold: Occasionally, Arctic outbreaks bring extreme cold: below 5 degrees F (−15 degrees C). Such extreme cold is rare, but if there no snow on the ground, it kills the leaves of leafy greens and lettuce to the ground. This ends your mid-winter picking, but don’t discard the plants. Beneath the blackened leaves, the roots are usually still alive and likely to sprout a new crop of leaves in the spring.
Effect of snow: Cooler parts of the coastal regions receive occasional snow. Snow actually protects plants from low temperatures, but it is usually heavy and wet, so it can break plants, especially leeks and the stems of cabbage family plants. Use broken leeks immediately, before they start to rot at the break point. Leafy greens are flattened by heavy snow, but when the snow melts, they usually spring upright.
Effects of wind: In high winds, well-staked purple sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflower can lose quite a few leaves. They can look quite ragged, but as long as the main stems aren’t broken, they will grow more leaves in the spring and produce a good crop.
Above-ground vegetables: The main thing to remember about harvesting above-ground vegetables is not to pick while plants are frozen. Wait until they thaw out in a warm spell. This applies to leafy greens as well as leeks, Brussels sprouts and other cabbage family plants. It may take cabbages several days to thaw completely inside. If you harvest while plants are frozen, they thaw into mush, but they will be fine if you allow the plants to thaw out in the garden and take up water again before harvesting.
To get the most from a bed of leafy greens, pick one or two outer leaves from every plant. This method of light overall harvesting allows each plant to retain the maximum leaf area to continue growth. Inner leaves are the hardiest, so continually using the outer leaves before they are damaged by frost ensures there is little waste over the season.
As leafy greens are harvested through the winter, the plants get smaller and smaller because there is hardly any replacement growth. Don’t worry about nibbling them down to the smallest leaves, however, because growth begins to speed up in February with the first warm days.
Root vegetables: Even if you have to quarry through layers of snow to dig carrots, beets, celeriac and other roots, they will be in perfect condition if they were well mulched. Root vegetables keep well in the refrigerator, so choose a day with good weather and dig several weeks’ supply at once (mark where to start digging next time).
• Put a second, thicker layer of mulch on beds, including right over the tops of root crops.
• Be ready to cover above-ground crops if an Arctic outbreak of extremely cold air is forecast.
• It is too late to start other vegetables, but it is never too late to start planning for next winter.
• Yahoo! Another garden year begins, and it is time to dream over seed catalogs (see Resources for local seed suppliers). Ask other gardeners what grew well for them.
• Review your own garden notes from last year. Use them to plan the location of crops you want to rotate.
• If you will be starting your own seedlings, now is a good time to clean reusable pots and flats; buy or make your seedling soil mix.
• Starting in late January and continuing through February, prune fruit trees and bushes, grapes, and kiwi vines.
• U.S. gardeners: On January 30th, celebrate National Seed Swap Day. If you can’t find a local event to participate in, organize one yourself!
Reprinted with permission from Backyard Bounty: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Linda Gilkeson, published by New Society Publishers, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Backyard Bounty.
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