A Winter Vegetable Garden (cont)
By: Robert Smaus
When to Plant What
Though I sow something almost every week in winter, I begin in August, a seemingly unlikely time to be planting anything in southern California. But this is the first opportunity to sow cole crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, the weird sputnik-shaped kohlrabi, and especially brussels sprouts, which take a long time to mature. In August's heat and humidity, the seedlings come up like rockets off a launching pad.
What winter vegetables need to mature is cool weather. As youngsters, they can even handle the heat of California's sizzling San Bernardino and Imperial valleys. But when heads are forming, they need cool weather. Otherwise they'll likely make blossoms but not form heads. Even root crops get crisper in the cool soil.
There's enough time to get in two or more crops of most winter vegetables, so I sow seed again in late October, December, even in February. Though I'm feeding three vegetarian teenagers, there can be too much of a good thing, so I try to spread the harvest out by planting a little now, a little later, and some more after that.
I learned this lesson years ago when working in Alan Chadwick's fabled bio-intensive garden in Santa Cruz, California. We ate what we grew, and one week we had only beets, and way too many of them, so we subsisted on beet soup, boiled and baked beets, beet juice, beet bread, and beet cake. In retrospect, such a diet seems barely one step up from a downed airman's diet of ants and grubs.
Gardening in the mild coastal strip of southern California (USDA Hardiness Zone 10), where the last frost was back in 1908 or something like that, I'm admittedly spoiled. I can plant during any week of the year. But if you want precise planting dates, check with your cooperative extension office. Be sure to experiment a little, though; I've found the typical planting dates to be quite conservative.
As the weather cools down, germination slows down, too, so take this into account when menu planning. Seeds will wait for just the right conditions, which may take quite a few days. The sun will shine brightly for a few days, the winds blow warm, and up they'll come.
If you want to speed things up, cover flats or beds with a row cover, such as Reemay or Agrofabric. Thes materials let in the sun and rain (or irrigations), and trap the heat. They also exclude pests such as white cabbage butterflies, and they'll even help keep slugs and snails at bay. Lay the fabric on loosely, tuck the edges into the soil, and the seedlings will simply push it up as they grow. You can leave it on, but I usually remove it after plants are a few inches tall so I can keep a better eye on weeds.