Flower buds, leaves and roots. It may seem odd at first, but those are exactly what to expect from a winter vegetable garden.
While summer crops include lots of sweet, sun-ripened fruit, winter gardens tend to be more earthy, with edibles like broccoli, leafy greens and carrots.
These vegetables don’t take up as much room. Rather than galloping across the garden, they fit well in smaller spaces and containers. Indeed, you can grow your entire winter garden in pots on a patio, provided it’s a spot where the plants get at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day.
Cool-season vegetables are also relaxed about planting times. Because many of the leafy greens and root crops grow fast, you can plant them in waves from now through the end of winter.
At their most basic, broccoli and cauliflower are nothing more than clusters of stubby flower buds. They are among the largest cool-season edibles, with individual plants growing up to 2 feet tall and wide.
While you’ll see broccoli growing year-round in commercial fields on the Central Coast, the plants are easier to tend during cooler weather. That’s because they bolt — or open their flowers too soon — in warmer weather.
That doesn’t matter much to commercial growers, since they harvest the first big center stalk, then knock down the plants. But at home, it’s easy to extend the harvest. Still pick that first domed head. Then wait for new side shoots to form. They will be smaller, but just as tasty. Your plants should be good for several rounds of side shoots before declining.
Unfortunately, cauliflower is not likely to produce secondary shoots. But you can leave your plants in the ground for a week or so after the first harvest, on the off chance that any shoots show signs of emerging.
Both broccoli and cauliflower prefer the same conditions: good drainage, reasonably fertile soil and regular water. Plant seedlings about 1 foot to 18 inches apart. Expect the main heads for both to mature in about 60 days, with broccoli side shoots appearing for another few weeks.
Few varieties of broccoli and cauliflower are readily available. At local nurseries, seedlings may be simply labeled “broccoli” or “cauliflower.” From seed, however, look for Italian broccoli, Romanesco, which bears heads composed of twirly pyramid-shaped buds in lime green. Cauliflower also comes in purple and light green. There’s even a slow-growing, orange-tinged variety called Cheddar. Maybe it’s just the power of suggestion, but its flavor does seem to deliver a hint of cheese.
Leafy salad greens and spinach are among the easiest, most versatile winter edibles. With their frilly, ruffled and flat leaves appearing in varying shades of green, red, bronze and burgundy, it’s fun to plant them in contrasting rows or in patterns.
From seed, leafy greens may take six weeks to gain enough size to harvest. But seedlings from pony packs or 4-inch pots may be large enough within a few weeks.
Use kitchen scissors to snip the outer leaves. The plants will continue to grow from their centers, allowing you to harvest for a month or more.
There are literally dozens of varieties readily available. I choose mine by how they look, rather than by any perceived difference in flavor. While purists may disagree, I think that since many of them bear such a similar taste, I’d rather go with a pleasing look both in the garden and on the plate.
However, head and romaine lettuces are a little different. Both types take longer to mature — about 2 and a half months — and have a greater range of texture and flavor.
Buttercrunch is my favorite head lettuce. It truly has a buttery, crunchy taste. And I’ve found that it’s okay to harvest some of the outer leaves while waiting for the heads to develop. Braveheart is a crisp Romaine that has a light-green, rather than white, core.
Larger cabbage heads take longer to mature, with the heaviest varieties, such as the 15-pound King Slaw, taking 3 and a half months. Plant yours soon, to harvest right after the first of the year. Or cut the time in half by planting a petite variety, such as the pretty red and white Salad Delight, which weighs only 3 pounds.
Note that the pretty, frilly-leaved ornamental cabbages, also called cabbage flowers, are technically edible. But they have been bred for color, not taste, and don’t form heads. Stick with traditional head cabbage if you plan to eat it.
Regardless of the type of green, be sure to provide extremely fine-textured, fertile soil with good drainage.
The leafy types need only about 6 inches of soil, and grow well in smaller containers or even trays with drain holes.
Head and romaine lettuce, along with cabbage, need up to a foot of the good stuff.
Beets, carrots, radishes and turnips all tend to mature relatively quickly below ground. Meanwhile, above the soil, you can snip some of the foliage to toss in salads or garnish plates.
Very, very loose soil is key. That way the veggies can form properly. Even more important, you’ll be able to harvest them after the soil becomes saturated with rain. If you have heavy soil, grow these edibles in containers, raised beds or mounds.
Also grow all of your root crops from seed. But don’t start them in flats or shallow containers, where they can quickly exceed the depth and become stunted or stop growing. Instead, direct sow them in the garden. And prepare the soil at least a few inches deeper than the expected depth of the root plus its “tail.”
For instance, most beets range in size from a golf ball to an orange and have a tail that’s at least one and a half times as long. Burpee’s Golden Beet, for example, is about 2 inches tall, with a 3-inch tail. That means that your divinely loose soil should be at least 7 to 8 inches deep. Meanwhile, Burpee’s Red Ball Beet grows closer to 4 inches tall and has a 6-inch tail. So the bed should be at least 12 inches deep.
Turnips’ tails tend to be about one and a half times the height of the turnip. Carrots and radishes have greater variability.
Thumbelina carrots form stubby globes just an inch or two across with no tail in sight, while the long, skinny Sugarsnax grows 12 inches deep with another few inches of tail.
Meanwhile, Petite Easter Egg radishes form little ovals only 1 1/2 inch across with tails nearly twice that, while white oriental type radishes, such as Summer Cross, grow more than a foot long, with tails extending a few inches more.
Some cool-season vegetables don’t fall neatly into the categories of flower buds, leafs or roots.
Bok choy and Swiss chard offer up both leaves and stalks.
Boy choy, also known as Chinese cabbage, is quite striking, with tightly packed, bright-white, upright stalks that bear big, white-veined, oval green leaves.
Swiss chard bears big, crinkly leaves as well. But its stalks steal the show, coming in candyland colors of hot pink, orange, red and white.
Leeks are grown for their tall, succulent stems. Mound loose soil or mulch around the stalks as they elongate, to maintain their ghostly white color and keep them tender.
Kohlrabi is such an oddity that you might grow it just for its crazy look. Its fat stem looks like a white, pale-green or purple tennis ball and tastes like broccoli with a dash of radish. Skinny, round stems emerge from random spots and bear large, crinkly leaves that are similar to kale.
Seeds of Wisdom
Plant smaller, quick-growing winter crops such as radishes, carrots and leafy greens between slower-growing crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. You’ll have finished harvesting the quick crops before the slower growers fill in.
Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.