Monday, October 19, 2009

Winter Vegetable Gardens

Plant carrots in January and you'll never have to eat carrots.
~Author Unknown

Living in the Pacific Northwest you can get used to the rain, in fact expect rain. But yesterday even for here, there was a whole lotta rain. We set a rain record for that day in history. It was a good rain to water the garden, which endured a very dry summer, and a good rain to bring down many more leaves for raking and spreading over the soil for winter mulch. By the afternoon the sun shone again and I ventured into the vegetable garden to see what remained that I could use for dinner. I was going to make veggie quesadillas, so I brought in a leek to add to the spicy sauté and 3 cucumbers to “cool” off the jalapenos. It was quite a tasty paring and especially nice to be able to bring in something from the veggie patch even now in mid-October. There are still a few green beans I need to pick, I’ll get about a handful, and the kale and winter lettuce is growing nicely. Kale is a cool /cold weather vegetable and I should be able to harvest leaves most of the winter through spring. Mine is the Tuscan variety, aka Black or Dino kale. The leaves are not the big ruffled type but long, dark and a little bumpy in texture. It’s wonderful chopped (be sure to remove and compost the tough central ribs) and sautéed in olive oil with fresh chopped garlic and salt and pepper and a little freshly ground fenugreek. On reader Shari's blog I follow, there's a recipe for baked 'kale chips'. If you like to eat healthy, keep fit and love a good belly laugh you'll love this blog. I made some kale chips from her blog and they are yummy. To find the recipe and instructions go to You can also go to for many more posts or click the link found to the right of this page.
As for the winter lettuce, I will cover it to protect it from the bitter cold winter months. Around here protected winter lettuce goes dormant over the winter. The growth slows down to barely a crawl but if you protect it from freezing it will begin to grow again in the late-late winter months. Last year we had a record breaking cold winter, but I was able to pick enough lettuce leaves from a few plants to make a small side salad for two on Valentine’s Day.
Lettuce varieties planted for the winter months are not necessarily the same varieties planted for the summer months. Be sure to read catalog and package descriptions and instructions carefully for better success. In the spring, seed racks should contain summer varieties of veggies and in the fall they should change over to those better suited for fall and winter temperatures.
It’s easy to make a shelter using PVC pipes and corners and T’s. Cut the pipes to the lengths you want with a hack saw, make it tall enough off the ground so as not to smash your plants and be sure to angle it for rain run-off. Otherwise it will sag and collapse onto the plants inside.

Over the frame work I drape a large sheet of bubble wrap and over that I drape 2 layers of thick 5 mil plastic sheeting cut to size. These 3 layers of plastic are then held in place with ‘garden clips’ that I mail ordered from Territorial Seed Company. Find them at or call 800-626-0866. To describe these clips and how they work is difficult but if any of you are old enough to remember the old style clips that cupped over your hair curlers to hold them in place (long before hot rollers)...yep that’s how they work. Ingenious little things and they last a looooong time. I’ve had mine for many years, use them every winter but never had one break. They come in different sizes depending on the diameter of the PVC pipe you use. I have two sizes as the bubble wrap adds thickness.

In so doing you are making a coldframe. The bubble wrap is especially important. A little trick I learned from the English via their fabulous gardening magazines. They use bubble wrap to insulate the glass in their green houses so I thought I’d try it with my coldframes. Equally important is that the bubble wrap goes UNDER the smooth plastic. Otherwise it will get water-logged with rain or melting snow and sag. Believe me you don’t want to be out there in the blowing snow re-working the thing…like I did. Since I began doing the bubble wrap trick I’ve never lost lettuce due to freezing. But remember I am in zone USDA 7-8. Previously it was hit and miss. I can’t guarantee this for the mid-west or eastern states where your freezing goes deep into the soil, but here it has worked like a charm for me. Unfortunately large bubble wrap sheeting is hard to find. I think I saved mine from some shipment or something. On those warm, sunny spring days don’t forget to lift a corner of your coldframe, or pull it away from the wall an inch or so if your’s is like mine shown above, to let some of the heat escape. They can get too warm, just like a greenhouse, you’ll want to vent out some of the hot air.

Last year for the first time I also tried to protect a lettuce plant from freezing with a “Wall-O-Water”. It worked! It even got snowed on, but the water didn’t seem to freeze and the lettuce plant began to grow again in late winter. I think we ate that lettuce in April. You can get a Wall-O-Water 3 pack at most hardware stores with a garden center. They are like a teepee with vertical channels you fill with water. They are placed around the plant and the warmth of the day is stored in the water and released back in the cold of the night. They are typically sold to use for young tomato plants in spring.

By the way, these are not paid for endorsements…just info on what has worked for me that I want to pass on.

Lettuce and kale are the only vegetables I’ll be over wintering this year. I’ve tried Brussels sprouts twice but the aphids are such a nuisance and burrow deep into the sprouts, I gave up. Too bad because I love oven roasted Brussels sprouts with potatoes and carrots tossed in olive oil, garlic, basil, rosemary and onion. Carrots can be grown in summer and kept in the soil well into the winter months too. It’s wonderful to go out on a stormy day and pull up a few carrots for a wonderful hot soup simmering on your stove.

There are many more winter vegetables that do well in the cold. Quality mail order seed companies will have spring and winter editions of their catalogs, changing seed available depending on which will tolerate cold or heat. Your local mail order seed companies have catalogs full of options. Read them carefully, there’s a lot of education to be had in them. Local may not mean your immediate city but chances are there are small and family owned seed company businesses that cater to your local climate needs. These companies offer seed that have been tested to perform in your zone. Some of the big companies are not so selective. They simply offer what sells best nationwide and you have a better chance of failing. The smaller local companies have your growing success as their best interest. The two I rely on most around here are Territorial Seed Company (link above) and Nichols Garden Nursery ( both located in Oregon.

Do you have a vegetable garden? Do you grow any winter veggies? I’d love to hear from you, what you’ve grown, how it worked or if you are inspired to try next year. Just click on ‘comment’ below and let me know your thoughts. It may be too late to start growing now but it’s never too late to plan for next year.

In bloom in my garden today: Eupatorium ‘chocolate’ (joe pye weed), blue fall Crocus speciosus, Skimmia, hardy geranium ‘Mavis Simpson’, Kirengeshoma palmata, Ajuga, Cyclamen coum, Hosta lancifolia, Caryopteris, Digitalis (foxglove), Echinacea, Salvia, Daphne, Roses, Coreopsis, Nepeta (cat mint), Solanum crispum, Gauara, Fushia, Phygelius (cape fushia) Schizostylis, Borage, Alpine strawberries, bulb Fennel.

Author’s photos

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fall Cleanup, more or less

"In these golden October days no work is more fascinating than this getting ready for spring. The sun is no longer a burning enemy, but a friend, illuminating all the open space, and warming the mellow soil."
Charles Dudley Warner, 1829-1900, My Summer in a Garden

It’s October and the trees are beginning to give up their leaves.

When it comes to fall clean-up, there seems to be two schools of thought. One says do it, the other says don’t. I mostly follow the don’t group with a bit from the do group, but I’ll try to explain both.

For purists, fall clean-up consists of removing all decaying plant debris including fallen or yellowing leaves, spent flower stems and seed heads, cutting down to the ground any perennials that will or are dying back, raking the ground of any debris…generally tidying up and making the garden look ‘neat’. In doing so you remove hiding places and shelter for slugs, snails and bugs that will over winter as well as disease pathogens that remain in leaf matter on the ground (ie: rose black spot), all of which will come back in spring to torment you for another year. That doesn’t sound too bad does it?

However, all that raking and trimming can also leave the ground bare to sprout a whole new crop of weed seeds that will germinate and grow during fall and winter when you least want to get out and pull them. If you leave the weeds for a more convenient time to tackle them you will have a mess of weeds already dropping more seeds by the time you do get out there. I’ve read seeds can lie dormant in the soil for over 7 years. A little disturbance of the dirt exposes them to the light and up they sprout. Weed control for me means pulling or hoeing the little blighters whenever I see one and in fall I cover the ground with a blanket of gathered tree leaves that drop from my 2 vine maples, 1 Mountain Ash, 3 Katsuras, 2 Japanese maples and 2 Winter Hazels (Corylopsis). I look forward to fall when I can begin raking and putting this blanket over my garden’s soil. Not only do I get great exercise raking the leaves that fall on the lawn (no lazy leaf blower for me), the leaf blanket over the garden looks nice, and the weed seeds that blow around can’t find the dirt. Some leaves will blow around a bit in winter winds, but they are easily swept back into the garden on those sunny winter days when you have cabin fever. Over the course of the winter and following spring the leaves will decompose into mulch returning nutrients to your soil and improving its tilth.
All of the trees mentioned above have small leaves, so no mowing over them to chop is needed. Any leaves you spread should be small in size. Easiest if you plant trees with small leaves to begin with, but if you only have big leaves it is best to chop them up somehow. Some people mow over a leaf pile with a lawn mower, while others will drop leaves into a garbage can and plunge into it with a trimmer or weed-whacker. Either way, if they are too big they will just mat and rot into a slick mess and not allow air and water to penetrate down to the soil.
The leaves you don’t want to leave in your garden are rose leaves and any other leaves that appear to be diseased. Rose leaves can harbor black spot spores only to perpetuate the problem the following year.

If you want to plant some trees to produce your own fall blanket, look into Katsura. Hopefully they’ll grow in your region. The new leaves in the spring are plum color, they turn a beautiful green for summer, small and round, pretty as breezes rustle them. In the fall they turn golden to orange and best of all the FRAGRANCE! As they dry on the tree and fall to the ground they fill the air with an aroma very much like baked brown sugar! I adore fragrance in the garden!

Getting back to fall clean up…or not.
Removing seed heads from your spent perennials can remove natural food for the birds. It is so much fun to watch the chickadees dine on the Echinacea, Liatris and Caryopteris seed heads that remain swaying in the breezes in January when snow covers the ground. That said, I am selective about which seed heads I allow to remain. If the plant is a prolific self seeder I do cut seed heads off before they can make a mess for me to have to weed in spring. But I wouldn’t mind if the Echinacea popped up in a few more places and the caryopteris has never been a problem either, the birds seem to get every last morsel. Many hybrid plants may produce seed but it is often sterile, it’ll never sprout so there’s no problem leaving them on for the birds.
Some seeds are so decorative. Look at this fluffy seed of Clematis. A shame to cut it off, and I’ve never had them create a weedy problem.

Leaving the twiggy structure of the plant or shrub also provides some protection from freezing. As snow falls in and around the ‘skeleton’ of your plant, it creates a teepee of snow that insulates the trunk and root zone from freezing temperatures.
I do prune the tall stems down on roses but only about half way, leaving a strong, firm structure but reducing potential damage by tall stems being whipped and torn by winter winds or broken by heavy snow. Breakage like that opens stems to rot, decay or bug harboring. Further pruning is better done in spring, just before new growth comes on.
I also leave an inch or so of stems from bulbs help to identify where they are so I don’t accidentally spear them next spring when digging. Some claim this brings rain water and bugs down to the bulb causing rot or decay, but if that is the case I haven’t noticed any problems.

To me, fall cleanup is spreading compost from my own pile (I never have enough), spreading raked leaves, cutting down corn stalks, tomato and green bean vines, tenting the young winter lettuce so it will over-winter to feed us in February or March, minimal perennial trimming and generally enjoying the changing season with the earthy aromas only fall can bring. The majority of my trimming comes in spring when the new growth quickly covers that which I cut away. I have a problem with snails and slugs under that leaf blanket? Definitely yes, but then I live in the rainy Pacific Northwest where they are a problem anyway. I think the benefit outweighs the cost.

In bloom in my garden today: kirengeshoma palmata, ajuga, cyclamen hederifolium, colchicum, cicimifuga, hosta lancifolia, caryopteris, Echinacea, salvia, daphne, roses, coreopsis, hardy geranium, nepeta, solanum crispum, gauara, fushia, canna, schizostylis, green beans, borage, alpine strawberries, bulb fennel.

Photos by the author
Clematis photo courtesy of Pat Chissus