Early Winter in My Outdoor Refrigerator

A good rule of thumb for winter edibles is to have your vegetables large enough for harvest by mid-December, which I achieved with some of my plantings. Carrots, beets and kohlrabi are ready anytime.

The goal is to use the garden as an outdoor refrigerator, planting crops that will store well in situ and can be harvested as needed. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale are on that list.

With leafy greens, I have some ready now, and some smaller plants under good protection that will hopefully give me a very early harvest when the days begin to get noticeably longer a month from now, well after the solstice.

Here are some images of my garden right now.

cold frame open

Airing out the lettuce, spinach and mustards growing in one cold frame.

Cold frame greens

Greens in a cold frame: two types of lettuce ready for picking, spinach on the right, and a row of seedlings in front that promises a future harvest.

Beets

A winter beet harvest is just what the doctor ordered.

Carrots

The soil for these carrots could have been lighter. Heavy soil with rocks can lead to deformed roots. Still, how sweet they are!

In the foreground is my carrot bed, protected by floating row cover.

In the foreground is my carrot bed, protected by floating row cover and straw mulch.

Kohlrabi and turnips

A kohlrabi ready for harvest sits between a glass cloche in the foreground and a window A-frame in the back that is covering Japanese turnips.

Parsley

Parsley makes a thick cover crop — and of course we can eat it!

Who’s Got Next in 3 Open Beds?

I took inventory last weekend and found three spaces in my vegetable garden that are ready for the next crop rotation. Right now, at this crucial time for getting the fall and winter garden going, I have at least that many choices of crops to start.

Lettuce in flower

We had many salads off this lettuce bed, but now it’s regrown and gone to seed. I’ve enjoyed the stately flower stalks, but now it’s time to rotate fall peas into this space.

Space #1: The Garlic Bed

The garlic came out in early July, so this bed has been sitting “fallow” for a few weeks.

Location: The garlic filled the west end of a large bed. It gets good summer sun, but is fairly close to a tree and some bushes, so the lower angle of the winter sun causes part shade.

Strategy: I’ll plant some root crops in succession, starting with beets. It’s a big bed, but I will only plant one short row each for the next few weeks, using different varieties with 50-65 days to maturity. In September, I’ll fill the rest of the bed with carrots for overwintering. The shorter-season beets will be ready by late September, but the longer-season ones will hold in the bed well into winter (with a bit of mulch), getting sweeter with the fall frosts.

Bed prep: Last week I dug a light dusting of complete organic fertilizer into the soil, and covered the bed with a welded-wire mesh so the open soil doesn’t become a cat’s litterbox. Before I plant, I’ll spread an inch of compost on the soil and dig it in.

Since both of these crops are susceptible to flying insect pests laying their eggs on the plants (carrot rust fly and spinach leafminer) , I will cover the entire bed with a floating row cover (FRC). To make it easy to tend and harvest, I’ll set up cloche hoops and stretch the FRC over that. If we get unusually early frosts, I can switch to plastic to protect the plants for winter.

 

Space #2: The Pea Bed

We had a great year for peas, with a harvest longer than normal. The vines just got pulled last week. Annual flowers and some spreading thyme crept in around the pea trellis.

Location: This is a very visible bed right by the main path to my deck.

Strategy: I want Brussels sprouts here. Sprouts are a long-season crop that will not mature until December or January, and I like to have them in a visible spot so I can watch the sprouts develop.

A few weeks ago, I started Brussels sprouts from seed, and the plants are quite small, with just two sets of leaves. I’ll hold them in the pots for another week and then plant them.

When it comes time to plant, I will hedge my bet  by going to the nursery and buying some starts, and will interplant them with the ones I started from seed. That will give me a second variety too.

Bed prep: I’ll pull up the annual flowers (now gone to seed) and dig out the thyme. Since neither the flowers nor the peas are “heavy feeders,” soil fertility in this bed should be fine, so I don’t need to fertilize. But, since brassicas like a rich soil with good water retention, I’ll dig in some compost, which will also boost fertility a bit. I’ll also use FRC over the young plants to ward off the cabbage moth.

 

Space #3: The Salad Bed

This spring I sowed a mixed bed of lettuces and other greens, which produced well and gave us salad from April to mid-June. We enjoyed the buds and flowers of the arugula and mustard greens, but those plants bolted first. Then the lettuce turned bitter, and now the plants have shot up and are going to seed. Since lettuce produces a beautiful large seed head, I’ve been letting them stand in the bed.

Location: This is part of a raised bed off the lawn. The trees have grown up in this area, and with the position of the summer sun, the bed now gets shade about half the day. It gets good winter sun after the deciduous trees have lost their leaves.

Strategy: The part shade should be great for a crop of fall peas. These can be planted through July, so I’ll get them in the ground soon.

Bed prep: To prevent the curious, omnipresent crows from yanking the seedlings out of the ground, I will put a layer of floating row cover over the bed. This should prevent slug attacks too, and will keep the seedbed moist during germination, a key to successful summer planting.

 

Who’s got next?

Well, that’s the plan for three beds and four crops. But there are so many more choices coming: fall salad greens, overwintering kale and sprouting broccoli, Asian winter greens, collards, turnips, kohlrabi, fava beans, cover crops…a long list.

But almost as long is the list of beds that will be free soon: carrot bed, potato bed, onion bed, last-of-the-kale bed, buckwheat cover crop bed, and the quinoa and orach bed. Later, more space will come with the harvest of rutabagas, squash, peppers and tomatoes.

During the height of summer, fall and winter are on my mind. And as I pull out mature crops now, I’m getting more than a summer dinner. I’m getting valuable real estate for the next rotation.

 

Beyond the Leaf: Other Fall-planted Vegetables

If you’ve gotten some lettuce, mustards and specialty greens like corn salad

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and arugula in the ground, good for you. But there’s still time to put out some other vegetables that will feed you this fall, into the winter, or next spring.

A couple of cabbages can still be planted. Start Early Jersey Wakefield or other overwintering types within the next week, and look for a crop next April. You might still find Savoy varieties as starts in the

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nurseries, and those can be transplanted now.

Cabbages

Cabbages in March

Same with Chinese cabbage, napa

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or choi types. If this leafy Brassica takes hold and gets some size before our fall rains begin, you could be eating it this winter. If these plants are still very small by mid-October, give them an extra winter boost by covering them with a cloche.

Radishes can be started through mid September too. Short-season ones like Cherry Belle will give you roots for your Thanksgiving table. If you’ve planted winter varieties like Daikon and Black Spanish, which go in the ground late July or August, they should size up by late fall. All types will hold in the ground for harvest through mid-winter.

You can even start beets and turnips now for two crops: grow some for the greens, which you’ll be sautéing as Thanksgiving nears, and grow a row that you’ll cover for winter and harvest as small roots early in the spring. For beet greens, try Early Wonder Tall Top, and for overwintering, grow Lutz or Winterkeeper; for turnip greens, try Purple Top. Keep them under floating row cover to protect against the cabbage maggot, as the adult fly will still be depositing its eggs at the base of baby plants until our first frost.

Beet greens

Golden and Early Wonder Tall Top beets

It’s a bit late to start carrots, but in a warm, raised bed (covered in floating row cover) they would still germinate, and if they get a couple of sets of leaves on them before winter, you could keep them under a cloche for a delectable early spring crop of baby carrots. Try Merida or Yaya. There is not much coming out of the garden in early spring that is sweeter.