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If your Victory Garden is starting to wave a white flag, no need to surrender. Just make a short retreat and prepare for the winter campaign.
The pandemic, fears of food shortages and just plain boredom led many people in the Bay Area to become first-time gardeners, emulating the World War II-era populace by growing their own vegetables in backyards, porches or kitchen windows.
As the summer fades, so are many gardens, but instead of mourning the loss of tomatoes and squash, look to a future filled with broccoli, cauliflower and beets.
Janet Miller, manager of Our Garden, the Contra Costa Master Gardeners’ Walnut Creek demonstration garden founded by the Bay Area News Group, has tips on finishing up the summer harvest and planting for the winter.
In many ways, Miller says, the winter victory garden is less work than the summer one. Plants grow more slowly, eliminating the need to harvest daily and figure out what to do with all the produce. There are fewer insects to worry about. And with luck, nature will assist with the watering.
What to do now
Take a good look at your garden to see what’s still doing well, what has slowed and what you can live without.
Bush beans and squash, Miller says, have pretty much had their run. Production isn’t near what it was a couple of months ago and the squash likely is developing powdery mildew. Those plants can be pulled out and added to the compost pile.
Did you grow vegetables that you really didn’t care for or didn’t do well? Pull them out, Miller says. There’s no need to grow food you’re not using and no need to spend resources on plants that aren’t delivering.
If your tomatoes and eggplants are still producing, you can leave them for now, but if you’re noticing the tomatoes are getting end blossom rot (dark, mushy spots on the bottoms), you can pull those out, too.
Indeterminate tomatoes varieties will continue producing until the first frost, but the later it gets in the season, the less time those tomatoes will have to ripen. Determinate tomato varieties, which grow to a certain height and produce most of their fruit at one time, are about at the point where they won’t have any more tomatoes and can be pulled up without guilt.
What to plant next
Although we might not be ready to think about winter, your garden thinks it’s time to start planting cool weather crops. Because of our relatively mild winters, there are many crops that we can grow in the winter — far more varieties than we grow in the summer, actually.
The largest plants we grow in the winter — cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower — need time to get established before the cold sets in and the hours of daylight are reduced.
You’ll find seedlings for all these plants in your favorite nursery and garden shops now or, Miller says, you can start plants from seed in pots and trays to be transplanted later.
Seeds that you can plant in your beds now include beets and carrots, but make sure you keep the soil moist. If the seeds dry out during germination, they will never sprout.
- Tip: Miller suggests covering the beds or containers with burlap, which you can then soak to make sure the area stays damp.
You can grow lettuce throughout the year, but when planting now, be sure to protect it from the heat and the sun. If temperatures are above 100, Miller says, wait until it’s cooled down to plant.
If you’re starting lettuces and other leafy greens from seed, you’ll need to grow them under a shade cloth. They won’t germinate until temperatures are regularly 85 degrees or cooler.
October is the time to plant garlic, but because you won’t harvest it until July, pick a spot in your garden bed or in a large pot that you won’t need for other plants.
- Tip: The larger the clove you plant, the bigger the bulb you’ll grow. While you can plant garlic from the grocery store, you’ll have much better luck planting organic garlic that you buy from seed companies or nurseries.
Peas love cool temperatures and can be planted now and grown through the winter.
- Tip: If you’re a fan of cilantro, surprise. It’s a cool weather crop.
Before planting anything, clear the beds or gather your containers, and add compost. One easy way to add nutrients and save yourself some work is to knock over existing plants and cover them with compost, burlap bags or cardboard. Continue to water the beds. In a couple of weeks, the plants will have broken down and returned nutrients to the soil. You can then tidy up and plant.
If you don’t want to grow any winter veggies, consider planting your beds in a cover crop. Fava beans are a favorite. They will help fix nitrogen in the soil that will benefit your summer crops next year.
Miller recommends a combination of legumes and grains to produce more diverse microbial life in your soil — an essential for a healthy garden.
- Tip: Most seed companies offer packages of mixed cover crop seeds. They’ll grow slowly through the winter, and some have beautiful flowers.
If you were happy with the vegetables you grew this season and want to grow the same variety next year, you can try collecting and saving seed. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Some plants cross-pollinate and so any seeds you collect will be a combination of both varieties and won’t come “true.” Squash is a prime example of that. You may have grown a certain variety of squash, but the plant may have been pollinated by a different variety your neighbor was growing. If you grew more than one variety, then saving seeds isn’t recommended unless you just like experimenting.
You can isolate buds on certain plants, such as tomatoes, to prevent cross-pollination. It requires some work but it’s not difficult.
- Tip: Cover a cluster of buds with a small cloth bag and wait until the blossoms open and pollinate each other. Then you can remove the bag, tie a marker around the branch so you’ll know which one you protected, and harvest the seeds when the fruit is ripe.
Tomato seeds require some additional work, as you have to separate the seeds from the gooey stuff, Miller says. Beans, however, are easy — just let them dry on the vine.
- Tip: Write down what varieties that you liked the best and did well in your garden, then buy those seeds and seedlings again in the spring.
If you grew lettuce, Miller says, you can also let a plant or two go to seed. It will likely reseed the bed without you having to do anything. Miller does that although, she says, she often gets lettuce coming up everywhere but the bed where the plant was.
Things to watch out for
While you may have to battle a host of hungry insects when growing your summer victory garden, you’ll only have one major pest in the winter. Unfortunately, it can do a lot of damage, Miller says.
The cabbageworm and cabbage looper are two sides of the same coin. The white cabbage moth, which is actually a type of white butterfly, and the cabbage looper moth lay their eggs on cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and other plants. Once the eggs hatch, they unleash dozens of tiny caterpillars that quickly start eating the plant. You can go from a healthy, happy cabbage patch to a disaster before you realize you have a problem.
The recommended treatment is hand-picking the eggs and caterpillars off the leaves, but it’s a time-consuming job. Miller says the better — and easier — solution is to cover the seedlings with row cloth.
Row cloth is a billowy material that allows the sun in, but not the moths. You’ll need to weigh the fabric down, or build hoop houses over the beds or pots. Keep the row cloth over the plants until they become big and are forming heads. Then keep watch for the caterpillars.
You tackled the summer Victory Garden, the winter one will be a snap.