Plan now for your winter garden

At first thought, there wouldn't seem to be much difference in fall and winter gardening. Most of the crops that are touted as suitable for growing in the winter are certainly harvestable in the fall if sown or planted early enough. Are there any appreciable differences between fall and winter gardening other than planting dates?

I have learned the hard way that the answer is yes. The biggest problem most gardeners encounter while growing fall vegetables is getting them started early enough to harvest before winter sets in. Most gardeners determine the size of their garden based on summer crops, leaving no room for a succession planting until the main crops like tomatoes and cucumbers are through. Even if there is room after a sizable harvest of early corn or a similar crop, there seldom is much thought toward December in July.

In the past few years there has been a growing awareness of the cost of global farming and the amount of fuel it takes to ship fresh produce halfway around the world. With less-stringent control of agricultural practices in some of these countries, the quality of produce becomes a concern, too. Do we really want to support agronomy where workers may be less than adequately protected from pesticide applications? Many of the substances that are banned here are still used in the production of food crops around the world. Do we really want to eat of these crops?

Aside from these concerns, we all know there is nothing that can top produce grown in your own garden, under your control. A walk down the produce aisle in January will convince you of that. So what do we need to do differently from summer and fall gardening to harvest vegetables in winter?

The first difference that we need to recognize is that crops simply do little or no growing during the coldest parts of winter. In order to be able to harvest over this long period you need to have quite a few plants of harvestable size before the cold weather hits. Some of the best winter plants are classified as greens. Kale, spinach, mustard greens, and collards are delicious, nutritious plants that can be picked all winter long. They just will not generate many new leaves between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day. You must have enough plants in the ground to satisfy your picking needs or you will go without. Believe me, once you become accustomed to eating these fabulous, tasty vegetables, you will need more than you think.

You must plant more plants over more space than you may think you'll need if you have not delved into winter gardening before. The second-biggest difference I've identified is how wet the winter garden soil becomes in comparison to the same soil in the fall. Not only is there more rainfall in winter, the actively growing plants in fall use more of that moisture than their winter counterparts. There is a tendency for plants to rot where the soil drains poorly.

In order to overcome the propensity for waterlogged soil, I highly recommend winter crops be grown in raised beds with prepared soils. A perfect soil mix is two parts commercial topsoil to one part fine bark or sawdust. If you intend to use clay soil in the mix, increase the fine bark to nearly 50 percent by volume. Raised beds also eliminate the worry of soil compaction since you don't walk in them to harvest your produce.

Some crops that grow beautifully in the fall will not survive our winter cold. Lettuce is one that needs extra protection and may not make it even then. The cole crops such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli differ widely according to variety and are better fall crops. Even carrots may be frozen out if not mulched heavily. Safer bets are radishes, turnips and green onions and scallions.

True winter gardening takes careful planning, plenty of space and careful preparation. Most crops need to be in the ground and actively growing by Sept. 1 in order to have a chance of being harvested this winter. What are we waiting for, it's time to plant!

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-10 a.m. Saturday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at

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