JUST BECAUSE we have mild enough weather to garden year-round doesn’t mean we have to. Or so I reassure myself as I retreat indoors in November to look at my Camellia sasanquas and witch hazels through rain-streaked windows.
Vegetable-gardening enthusiast Bill Thorness, who takes pleasure in picking lettuces for the Thanksgiving table, might convince me otherwise. But can you really grow anything except kale out there once winter settles in?
According to Thorness, some vegetables are at their best grown when the days are shortest. “ ‘January King’ cabbage takes on a beautiful magenta blush when nights grow cold,” he says. Kale is crisper in winter, and parsnips grow sweeter in chilled soil. Early spring carrots that have wintered underground are especially sweet and juicy.
He suggests Swiss chard as a good starter veg for those new to year-round gardening. Chard is easy to grow, disease-resistant and its brightly colored stems liven up the garden as well as the plate. If you plant seed every few weeks late summer into fall, you’ll have Swiss chard maturing in waves through the winter.
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“In our climate, four seasons just isn’t enough,” says Thorness, who has divided the gardening year into seven mini-seasons: To encourage frequent and sequential sowing, he counts three brief springs from mid-February through mid-July; summer; an early and late autumn, and winter. “Last year I had five successions of lettuce; this year I’m going for six.”
In his book, “Cool Season Gardener” (Skipstone, $18.95), Thorness describes how to use row covers, cold frames and cloches to extend the season. “A cold frame functions as a mini-greenhouse,” he says. Just put out the edge pieces for your cold frame in late summer and plant lettuce seed in it. Then in October when temperatures plummet overnight, put the cold frame in place and harvest greens through late autumn.
“You have to tackle cool-season gardening from different perspectives,” says Thorness, who has been experimenting with winter vegetables in his Phinney Ridge garden for decades.
For instance, what if your garden is still going strong as summer winds down and it’s time to get the fall and winter harvest into the ground? Thorness suggests a piggyback approach. Cut off the lower leaves of your tomatoes and seed greens in beneath them. The tomatoes will shade the seedlings from bright sunshine. Then when you cut your tomatoes down (don’t pull them out!) you can harvest greens on into the fall. Under-seeding works with squashes and cucumbers, too, if you support their big leaves on a frame. Nutritious Asian greens and mustard greens can be planted as late as October. There’s even a bulletproof variety called ‘Green in the Snow.’ Fava beans can go in the ground even later, into November. Then there are vegetables like snow peas, beets, spinach, arugula and carrots that you plant in fall to overwinter and harvest in early spring.
“The great thing about vegetable gardening is that you get to try again and again,” says Thorness. Which is probably why he’s invented the seven-season gardening year.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.