Cover Fall Edibles Now

In my Seattle garden, fallen leaves are drifting up around the edges of my vegetable beds like Technicolor waves lapping at the shore. Time to deploy the season extension.

This time of year, nature is getting ready to go dormant. Despite the occasional warm, sunny day, the weather pattern is changing. Shorter days (and longer nights), cooler temperatures, glorious rain, from drizzle to downpour, all signal the change in plants. Growth slows down. Cell walls begin to thicken in the plants, mirroring our defensive layers of fleece and wool.

Stave off the inevitable decline in your vegetable garden by covering those plants that are actively growing. The ones that will feed you salad this fall can be nursed along for a few more weeks if covered with a cloche or a cold frame.

Three devices

Three season extension devices protect fall and winter crops: hoop-house cloche, triangle tunnel and cold frame.

The root crops that are going to be overwintered will be aided by a blanket of garden fleece, also known as floating row cover. Later this fall, you can pull off the FRC and cover those beets and carrots with a cloche, giving them more protection during our coldest time.

dome hot cap

The last of the summer basil crop is nursed along under the dome hot cap.

The kale, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts will benefit from a top-dressing of compost and straw mulch, between the rows and around the plants. This step can be taken for all the fall and winter veggie plants, but isn’t as necessary for those under a cloche or cold frame until the weather really reaches our daytime winter temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I often do this now around my salad greens too, just since I’m out in the garden with the straw at hand. It’s often more pleasant to do it on a nice fall day than try to wait for a break in the winter rains that will take hold in November.

The main reason to do this season extension and mulching work is to protect our plants from the colder temperatures, pounding rains and desiccating wind.

A few weeks ago I put in a late batch of lettuces and raddichio into a long hoop-house cloche. With the unseasonably warm weather, I’ve been able to take that off for days at a time, and the veggies are nearing harvest. Now that rains and cooler weather are predicted, I’ve put it back on again.

Often at this time of year I’ll set up the cold frame over a bed with starts. It’s amazing to check the soil temperature inside the cold frame and in the bed next to it. Inside the bed, the temperature of the soil will be well above 60, while in the open garden the soil temperature is inching down toward the mid-50s. Capturing that warmer soil temp, keeping it from dropping so fast, is a key benefit to season extension.

cold frame

My Twinwall cold frame is keeping the fall salad greens robust.

Also this week we’ve had a couple of days of significant rain. At times, it’s come down pretty hard. A soft rain is great for watering the beds, and I open the season extension devices for a few hours in early afternoon if a light rain is coming down. The best situation is a nice soft rain for an hour or two, followed by a clearing and light breeze, so the plants dry out. Regular moisture on the leaves and stems of fall veggies can promote rot. If I can’t get the timing right to open the season extension during a light rain, I hand-water the beds as needed.

And I always keep the devices closed during a heavy rain. Over time, heavy rains will compact the soil, leach out the nutrients, and reduce those soil temps — all things I’m trying to avoid. Score another benefit for season extension.

floating row cover

Fall beets and carrots are growing nicely, and bug free, under a layer of floating row cover.

The winds are also gusting this time of year. Combined with cooler temperatures and rain, the wind can be hard on tender vegetable crops. The worst effect is when it blows the top layer of

hot caps

A couple of unusual kales that were struggling are getting a boost by being covered with glass hot caps.

mulch away from the base of the plant, exposing the plant’s fine root system. Those roots will dry up, making it tough for the plant to survive, much less grow. Such stress will invite pests, and can trigger the plant’s desire to bolt and go to seed.

One final idea concerning season extension: what’s good for the plants is also good for the pests. In this sense: the pests love the warmer, drier location too. I’m picking a lot of slugs and snails out of my season extension devices right now, and off the plants. I need to be diligent about this, because they’re all drawn to the warm place with plentiful food. As the temperatures continue to drop they’ll become less of a problem, but right now, I need to pay attention if I want to keep those fall crops around for my autumn dinners, and not just be feeding the pests.

new cloche

I’m having fun with my commercial-made cloche. The long single-row device has an internal wire frame and zippered vents with mesh.

Fall in the maritime garden is a time to appreciate our weather. The change is usually not abrupt, giving me a chance to also adjust my own pace to the slowing rhythm of nature. But the decline into winter is inevitable, which is another lesson. At this pace, it seems more possible to stay in the moment, enjoying the color and patterns of those fall leaves as they naturally mulch the margins of my garden.

 

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!

Practicing Patience in Planting

I can feel the vibe from here: when can we set out our tomatoes? A neighbor already has done it. Gangly plants in gallon-size pots are front-and-center in the stores. The questions go beyond tomatoes, though: how will you get your vegetables off to their best start? And what’s the right timing for planting the summer garden?

How? Season Extension

I’m on the verge of being a nag on this topic, but a great way to ensure a better start is to shelter your spring plantings with season extension devices.

  • Tomatoes and other hot crop transplants will benefit from added warmth
  • Spring greens will also welcome the warmth, especially when sprouting from seed
  • Seedlings susceptible to pests and diseases will gain strength when protected
  • Small plants can be spared the pounding from occasional heavy rains or strong winds (or even hail — we had some a couple of weeks ago)

This Sunday, April 12, 1-2 p.m., I’ll be showing and telling all about season extension at the West Seattle Nursery & Garden Center. I will explain in more detail why these devices help, and then I’ll show off a few of my designs and things sold by the nursery. You can “kick the tires,” so to speak, and think about what might work for you.

Tomatoes in cloche

Putting a cloche over your tomatoes can give them an extra warm start. This is especially important if planting out now. Even though our weather has warmed early, there is still potential for many weeks of cool spring days and chilly nights.

When? Be Conservative

It’s tempting to march out to the garden, clear away last year’s detritus, and just plop everything in the ground — seeds, starts, trellises, cloches. One big afternoon of work and you can just sit back and wait for the harvest, right? Well, maybe. Go ahead and try it. I would counsel patience.

I like to take a couple of steps at a time, slowly building my garden throughout the spring. I do it this way partly because I enjoy the process, and also because things will grow better if planted at the right time. As with so many things, timing is everything.

Right now, my spring greens, root crops and peas are up and growing nicely. I’m still a couple of weeks away from fresh salads, but we’re just finishing the last of the winter salad greens.

Also, I’m clearing and prepping the beds for my hot summer crops. The cover crop and flowering brassicas are coming out, lime is being dug into the soil where needed, and all the old stuff is being chopped up to make compost.

Cover crop being chopped

Cover crop has been chopped down with a hoe (right) and is being dug in with a garden fork (left). This natural fertilizer (green manure) needs two weeks to decompose before planting into it.

Soon I’ll dig in compost and fertilizers, as needed, based on the planting plan.

I continue to plant small quantities of root crops and greens, so that I’ll have a longer continuous harvest of these crops. I eat a lot of them.

What’s Next?

The green manure provided by chopped-in cover crops, and the lime, have to settle into the soil for a week or two before planting. That will bring me to the end of April, which is just about right timing to shake out the bean seeds. Then I’ll think about getting warm-season transplants like tomatoes and peppers in the ground.

By mid-May, those will all be planted, and then I’ll do the last of the summer plantings: squash.

Meanwhile, I am also planning my fall and winter garden. Yes, well before summer has come! By early June, I’ll be planting fall brassicas, and by July, most of my winter and overwintering crops will be in the ground.

All that will be left to plant are short-season fall crops, which will go in after the heat of our summer has dissipated, around late August.

Practice Patience

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

Right now I’m enjoying watching the orchard mason bees. They have emerged from their cocoons and are busy pollinating my fruit trees. Soon they’ll start laying eggs in the holes in my wooden bee house.

If I want to really see all this activity, I need to slow down, and stand or sit near the bee box for a while. (Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.) My eyes need to adjust to their erratic activity, to see their patterns.

The bees are not working on my schedule. In order to learn from them, I must accustom myself to their ways.

Observance of the natural world takes time. I must take it on its own terms. Growing a vegetable garden also requires relinquishing my own concept of schedules and needs, replacing those with a studied observance of the weather, growth habits of plants, and messages from nature.

Starting Your Edible Year: Free Classes Begin Sunday

Do you want to get started in the vegetable garden, but are unsure what to do right now? Come to my first free class this Sunday, March 15 at City People’s Garden Store in Seattle’s Madison Park.

seedling closeup

I’ll share a bunch of timely reminders in “Start Edibles Early for Longer Harvests.”

Now is a great time to get an early batch of edibles into the ground, and plan for multiple harvests.

The class is the first of “The Edible Year, a four-part series that runs through early June. Each class is at 11 a.m.

Here’s the whole series:

  • March 15 — “Start Edibles Early for Longer Harvests”
  • March 21 — “Soil-building and Amending for Edibles”
  • April 18 — “Growing Great Tomatoes”
  • June 7 — “Think Next Spring: Starting Long-season Vegetables”

If you’re in West Seattle or across Puget Sound on the Kitsap Peninsula, you might be interested in these other talks on my calendar this spring:

  • April 12, 1-2 p.m. I’ll do an interactive “Season Extension Demo & Talk” at West Seattle Nursery & Garden Center. Please note: this is an outdoor location, under a tent, so dress for weather.
  • May 20, 9:30 a.m. I’ll travel to Kingston for a talk on “Planning For Year-round Edibles.” It’s sponsored by the Kingston Garden Club, but open to the public.

Try a Class at Craftsy; Free Giveaway!

If you haven’t yet taken a classinstructorbadge at Craftsy.com, now is your chance. It’s the perfect time to learn some new gardening techniques. And, I am collaborating with them on a free class giveaway!

Here’s the video trailer for my class, “The Extended Harvest: Vegetables for Every Season.” We’ll be giving a free class to one lucky entrant who checks out Craftsy between now and Friday, March 13.

To enter the contest, follow the link to my Craftsy class and create a free account. That’s all you need to do to be entered. While you’re on the site, browse around. You’ll find a number of short, free classes that will give you a great idea of how to use Craftsy.

I appreciated the professional, thorough approach the Craftsy folks took in helping me create this class.

Shoot1

Shooting a scene for my Craftsy class, “The Extended Harvest.”

We went through an extensive process to plan and organize the class material. Then, a producer, videographer and other staff came to film in my garden — three intense days of work that produced more than 30 hours of video!

They edited it down to 7 lesson, each about 20 minutes, for a total class that’s just over two hours.

Chopping compost

Chopping compost for the Craftsy class lesson on soil fertility.

You can watch one lesson at a time, or just parts of each, picking up where you left off. Re-watch any or all of it, as many times as you want. You can take notes, ask questions, and share with the class your own gardening projects. It’s easy and interactive.

There’s a gardening blog, and you can find lots of other resources too, like this free guide to container gardening.

I’ve become a fan of other classes, too, learning new gardening tips from other instructors, delving into a photography class, and trying an art class on drawing. There are many other topics, too, from knitting to cake decorating — a wide array of crafts and skills.

These online classes at Craftsy help you keep learning for life and mastering new skills. That certainly sounds like a formula for a healthy mind and a great garden!

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