Planning the Fall and Winter Garden

Apologies for the long absence! What can I say? I was ready for a new spring look.

We came back from our trip and hit the ground running!  We have been catching up on the weeding, the planting, the weeding, and the harvesting.  We’re also getting ready for a sailing trip this weekend, and then I go back to work next week.  There are many blog posts yet to be written on all we’ve been up to, including my continuing work on the Grand Master Plan…

But Monday I picked up an excellent local book (the author is on Saltspring Island, which matches our local microclimate almost exactly) on winter gardening at the library, and now that all the summer crops are in, I’m turning my attention to planning for the next harvest.  Last year we had some greens and tomatoes through the end of November, but my meager attempts at having the garden produce beyond that didn’t come to much.  I planted some brassicas (cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc) by direct seeding too late, and then the slugs got them all.  I tried some nursery seedlings, but again, it was late in the season and they were all root bound and didn’t really produce before the weather turned.

Last year my major stumbling block was getting my head around the idea of planting for fall before the summer had even kicked in!  But this year I am prepared and determined.  Our infrastructure (new beds, better soil, irrigation, hoops) has set us up for so much success, I have no excuses!  And now, with Linda Gilkeson’s small book Year-Round Harvest: Winter Gardening on the Coast to help, I’m ready to start my seeds.

The book walks readers through what crops work here, which ones need any kind of cover, and what kind works for the author, and when and how to harvest.  It’s a nice local and simple (empowering!) complement to some of the bibles of year-round harvesting, usually a la Eliot Coleman.  Gilkeson also helpfully confirms Steve Solomon’s crop rotation suggestions for the Maritime Northwest.  The process, which I really got my head around as I was doing my garden planning this past winter, is much easier than trying to adapt the conventional rotation schedules to our 3-4 crop growing season.

The jist is that early spring crops are usually done by sometime in July (with this year’s late spring, I’m estimating late in the month), and can then be followed by fall or winter plantings.  Those early crops could include those that have been overwintered, like garlic or fava/broad beans, also usually done in July.  Summer crops–long season ones like tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc–need to go in the ground in May or June, and so usually need to follow either a cover crop (like winter rye that goes in the fall before and whose spring growth gets tilled under in early spring), or in a lucky year, a very early planting of salad greens or other quick early crops.

So rather than focusing on following a particular crop with another particular crop (ie roots follow leafies), I look at my beds and what’s in them.  I have a list of the early crops (peas, spinach, beets, spring lettuces, etc) and pick one to plant that hasn’t been there in the last few years.  Then I pick a fall crop that hasn’t been there before and put that in next.  When that crop is done, I can either mulch for the winter/early spring, or put in a short spring cover crop early in the new year.  This bed will become a long-season crop the next year, to be followed in October-ish by an overwintering crop (sprouting broccoli or a cover crop), that will then be replaced by a spring crop come March/April.  Still with me? :)

My next step today was to figure out how much to plant.  Remember that for winter crops (I’m planning November to March to be conservative this year), plants are surviving, but not growing.  So you need to plant enough that will be full grown by November (or by the first killing frost) that you can consume the whole plant when you harvest it.  Some plants will start to regrow in the early spring as soon as the weather warms up a little, but they will be slow.  Chard and kale, for instance, will be harvested to the stalk as mature leaves for cooking, but will regrow small leaves in spring that can be used for early salads.

I’m anticipating having salad greens, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zuchini, cucumbers (?), chard, and kale (and possibly a fall pea crop?) from my summer plantings right through until frost (or close to it), so I’m really planting now for the post-frost harvest: winter brassicas (cabbage and brussel sprouts, plus overwintering broccoli and cauliflower), extra kale and chard, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, beets, winter Asian greens, spinach, arugula and other mesclun, etc.  My winter leeks were started in February and are already in the ground, growing slowly but surely.  Some of these crops will get a hoop house when the cold temps hit, some will be fine without any protection (unless we get an unusual cold snap), and I’m also planning to do some greens in pots in the greenhouse.

I’m estimating how much produce I think we’ll eat each week, and planting accordingly.  So in a given week, I’m projecting we’ll eat: 1/4 cabbage, 6 carrots, 1 lb brussel sprouts, 1/4 rutabaga, 2 parsnips, 1 turnip, 2-3 bunches of chard, kale, beet greens and/or spinach, 2 beets, plus salad greens and stir-fry greens.  Multiply these amounts by 20 weeks, and then I hope I have enough space!  These winter harvests will be supplemented by crops in storage (onions, garlic, apples, potatoes, squash, canned tomatoes, and possibly frozen summer produce and berries, and hopefully our own dried beans) and probably a few purchased veggies like mushrooms.  I’m also determined to harvest and dry more of our herbs this year–they are so much better than what I usually have in the pantry!

That yummy-looking winter diet (all too familar as we’ve been eating it until VERY recently!) also has some implications for my Grand Master Plan, which includes selling some produce through the summer.  In order to figure out how much I can sell, I need to know how much of the summer crop I need to save to sustain us through the winter.  The answer seems to be, in this climate, not much.  We have gone through most of our stored tomatoes, but still have a few cans of both sauce and diced, and that was in a poor tomato year.  I don’t tend to cook with a lot of frozen produce through the winter as we try to eat seasonally anyway, but I was pretty frustrated when the grocery store brussel sprouts and chard that I was buying this Februrary were from Mexico!

So we’ll see how this goes–there’s no way to plan perfectly when it’s all new territory, and I know many PNW gardeners preserve a lot more than me to be self-sufficient in produce year-round.  It’s probable that they know something I don’t!  But we all have to start somewhere!

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10 thoughts on “Planning the Fall and Winter Garden

  1. Are you a chess player? Because you seem to be really good at planning a few steps ahead, and I am in awe! I am a person of good intentions and great planning but spotty follow-through, and you know what gets me hung up? Watering in the winter when the hoses freeze and it’s awkward getting under the row covers. Hmm…..better start working on a solution to that one.

  2. Sandy, I don’t actually have a grow light set up for any of my seedlings; last year I started my tomatoes and other tropicals indoors at the sunny window, but not until April. It worked ok, but I thought I could do better. This year, I started everything in the unheated greenhouse on a bed with a sand-covered heat cable, and even the toms did well started in March (I figured enough daylight hours by then). I think I will definitely need lights if I want to try starting anything in January–just not enough light outside, I would guess. So the winter starts I plan to just do in the greenhouse, which is now pretty much open all the time, but offers some work space and protection from pests.

    Miriam, I am a fabulous, systematic researcher and planner! That PhD is good for something! But I’m with you–definitely spotty on the follow-through. I’m also an excellent delegator. :) Unfortunately, when it comes to the garden, I have no one but myself around to execute any grand plans I come up with…sigh. And I hadn’t even thought about watering under the row covers during the winter!

  3. You sound so much like me! Good luck with the plan. I actually have a spreadsheet that I call my “eating plan” and I work backwards from that. You basically did the same thing in this post by starting with your weekly eating list and multiplying it out. I love excel for planning the garden – the trick is with a small garden to work in a crop rotation that won’t deplete the soil. I do try to stick with the BD rotational sequence for that reason. SS relies too much on synthetic fertilizer I think. Good luck though!!

  4. Thanks Annette–I’m glad I’m not the only crazy one who can get lost in the joys of planning. :) I haven’t made the leap to spreadsheets yet, though; so far I’m still a pen and paper gal. But as my plans get more complex, I think I’m going to have to think about better tracking tools…. I’d be interested in hearing more about your rotations and how you keep your soil up–I’ll go check out your archives. We’re starting with either poor soil or imported topsoil, all of which needs amending, so I’ve been adding compost and manure. In the freshly built beds I have used a version of Solomon’s COF this year (alfalfa meal, lime, kelp meal, bone meal–pretty benign to me) to help this year, but I will definitely be adding the chicken manure and compost in the fall!

  5. I am so impressed! I look forward to a post about exactly how much of each thing you’re going to plant, and then the follow-through of whether you actually had to buy veg from the store. I have been meaning (for two years now!) to keep track of what veg we do have to bring in, so I’ll plant more of it next time… but I keep forgetting to start. For that matter it might be relevant to start keeping track of how many of what I planted this year, too – laugh-

  6. It’s great to read about these things being put into practice. I have Solomon’s book and was planning on the same rotation but I got my cover crop in too late last fall and it never germinated. So this year I’m starting with a summer garden and we’ll see if I can get it together enough to have a winter crop. My goal is to get where you are but probably will take me another year. I’m in awe!

  7. FreeLearners, it definitely took me a year to get here–I feel SO much better organized and skilled this time around. In fact, I’m looking forward already to putting into practice next year what I have learned this year! A neverending process, methinks.

    Diana, what a good idea to keep track not just of what we plant and how we eat it, but also of how much we have to buy in (and when!). Because we’re just coming out of the long empty garden months, I feel reasonably confident of my estimates at this point, but I’m only planning this year for Nov-March, and of course, because of a cold spring this year, we weren’t really eating from the garden until late May. So this is an experiment year to see if/how much I need to store and freeze from the summer garden to keep us going in those late spring months next year.

  8. This is so funny – I actually have directions for creating an “eating plan” and planting and harvest schedules in the book! That is just how I think when I plan so I’m glad to hear it’s not just me!

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