Today, we welcome Kacey Cloues, of Garden*Hood, for a fantastic guest post about vegetable gardening in the fall and winter.
Winter vegetables, packed with nutrients and distinctive flavors, easily adapt to a huge variety of dishes from fresh, leafy salads to comforting, steaming stews. Fall and winter vegetable gardening is my favorite and MUCH easier than the summertime version. The cooler weather makes it pleasant to be outdoors again, and after the first frost, most of the pests depart. Winter generally brings an abundance of rainfall to the Southeast, limiting those hours dragging around a hose, coaxing life into bedraggled plants. The crops themselves are absolutely drop-dead gorgeous — an amazing tapestry spun of jewel-toned rainbow chard; the glittering reds, greens, and chartreuses of lettuces; the deep vitamin-rich shades of kale; and the sober, earthy greens of cabbages and broccolis. Throw in a few cheerful pansies, violas, and snapdragons for a layout worthy of a magazine cover … all without breaking a sweat in the blessedly crisp, cool days of fall.
Start with the Dirt
The first order of business in establishing a winter vegetable garden is prepping the soil. You can get very scientific with this, sending off soil samples for analysis at the UGA extension office, or you can do what I do:
- Yank out any remains from your summer vegetable garden
- Turn over the dirt
- Mix in some good rich compost (I prefer Mr. Natural’s worm castings or hen compost – it’s fully aged, not packed with cheap fillers, and adds wonderful nutrients and texture to our native clay soil)
- Bust up any sticky clods
- Rake out the whole bed for a smooth, blank slate
Either prep several weeks ahead of the actual planting time (making sure to mulch over the freshly turned soil before weed seeds set in), or you just do it the day of. It’s purely a matter of personal choice.
Lay Out Your Plants
The most important factors to consider in laying out your vegetable garden are sun exposure and access:
- The sun’s path is lower in the southern sky during the winter, so orient your rows to run east to west maximizing sunlight. Put taller crops on the north side of the garden where they won’t shade out shorter crops.
- Arrange plants for easy access. You should be able to reach each plant easily with room to walk and crouch down between rows. Harvesting shouldn’t feel like sadistic yoga — Don’t pack in so many plants that you can’t reach the ones in back without balancing on one toe and contorting yourself into an angry pretzel.
With these elements considered, be as creative as you want with the planting scheme, and just remember to tag each section so you’ll know what you have when it comes time to harvest.
Planting, Mulching, and Watering
While October’s too late to start from seed, it’s perfect for planting seedlings. They’ll be pretty small, but should have nice white roots (don’t hesitate to slip off the nursery pot and inspect the roots when buying plants). Be wary of super-sized seedlings this early in the fall. Chances are, they’re pumped-up on fertilizer and will poop out pretty quickly once planted.
Plant seedlings even with the soil. Resist the urge to mound up soil around the floppy stems of young chard and kale as this rots them; just let them flop for a week or so. They’ll develop sturdy stems in no time. Use the vegetable’s mature size as the guide for plant spacing. Add in colorful, flowering companion plants for some cheerful punch. Pansies and violas bloom through all but the harshest winter days. Snapdragons give nice fall and early spring color. Consider planting a couple ornamental cabbages to act as decoys to lure the cabbage moths away from your food crops (see the next section about pests).
Once the garden is planted apply a light layer of mulch. I use straw or wood chips, but really anything is better than nothing when it comes to mulch. Water newly-planted seedlings with a nozzle set to the gentlest shower setting so you don’t crush them under the water pressure. The only set formula for watering is to do so when the ground is dry two inches below the surface. Yes, this means stick a finger down into the soil as far as it can reach — if it comes out dry, water; if it comes out covered in damp dirt, leave it alone.
After a good frost, we’ll be home-free in the pest department. However, in these last few weeks of balmy fall weather, aphids and cabbage moth caterpillars may plague the garden. Aphids, tiny round bugs, pierce the surface of tender, young leaves and suck out the chlorophyll. If they cluster around the new growth of young seedlings, spray them with insecticidal soap or squish them with gloved fingers. Cabbage moth caterpillars are the bane of the fall vegetable gardener. Those pretty little white butterflies hovering about lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves of plants in the cabbage family (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards). Once the eggs hatch, they become small green caterpillars that can eat their way through an entire bed overnight. There isn’t really an effective treatment for the caterpillars, so the best defense is to be watchful for the eggs and remove them before they hatch.
Leafy vegetables can be harvested by individual leaves throughout the season, or by entire heads all at once. Cut individual leaves from the outside in, picking the more mature leaves first and working in towards the center of the plant where the new growth emerges. Use clean, sharp scissors to cut the leaves close to the plant’s main stem. Harvest up to a third of a plant’s leaves at any one time, and it will continue to grow and produce more for the rest of the season. When harvesting an entire head, wait until it is anywhere from 4”-8” across, then cut the main stem with a sharp knife or sturdy clippers. The plant will not likely produce any further vegetation after this point, so pull out the roots and plant something new (a technique known as “staggering in” a new crop).
Enjoy the Bounty
As soon as those winter veggies are planted, start scouring recipe books and the internet for delicious ways to enjoy the bounty of your winter garden. In our climate, lettuces can be harvested from November through April and kale and chard from November through as late as June/July. Bon appétit!
Thank you, Kacey, for your gardening magic. Kacey is the general manager of Garden*Hood, an independent retail garden center in Atlanta’s historic Grant Park neighborhood. Kale and chard are her favorite winter vegetables, but she can grow just about anything! www.gardenhoodatlanta.com