Fall and Winter Plantings

Peter Heffelfinger
Photo: Evelyn Adams

by Peter Heffelfinger

By now, the late August plantings for the next three seasons should be established. The goal is an initial level of plant maturity, established before the first frost, which allows continued slow growth through our relatively mild winter. The lettuces should head up first during the expected warm spells in early fall. This year, I am trying some new gourmet varieties, a hardy red head leaf lettuce, a multi-heading Italian green type, along with a small frisee. They will proceed at a snail’s pace in the off-season, but can be nibble-harvested, a few leaves at a time. I also am trying a new perennial arugula, which has long narrow leaves, like olive trees. The arugula is in large containers, protected under the house eaves, as part of the winter kitchen garden, along with the hardy standbys: garlic chives, Italian parsley, and Greek oregano. Any homegrown fresh salad green, allium, or non-dried herb is a welcome treat on the winter table.

The first hardy brassicas will be coming on soon, the fall Romanesco cauliflowers in all their Fibonacci-patterned glory, along with the slow-growing, always reliable red cabbages. The January King cabbage starts survived, under their late summer floating row cover protection against the cabbage moths and any lingering root maggot flies. They will head up in time for the New Year, as part of the plan to grow brassicas year-round. With climate change, however, the neat windows, when insects affecting the cabbage family usually appear, have dissolved into intermittent, unexpected flash mobs. So, use Reemay any time it’s needed. With row cover, though, you still get underground invaders: tiny slugs and miniscule snails, who decimated two of my dozen January King transplants. The slime-travelers are the sole survivors these days of the hordes of large black slugs and Asian snails of past wet seasons. It feels odd putting out sprinkles of Sluggo in the August heat, when usually such creatures disappear. But the population of mini-arthropods is small, affecting only a few starts. Plant enough to sacrifice some to whatever threat emerges.

Midwinter Crops
For midwinter crops, I have Valentine Purple Broccoli that matures into compact heads resistant to any cover of snow in February, a brassica bouquet that hopefully arrives by the Saint’s Day. The Purple Sprouting Broccoli will increase in leaf size all winter, then offer small flowerets in March and April. They are more of a salad treat. Blanch the buds quickly, turning the hot water a bright, royal purple; quickly chill the now-green buds in cold water and eat as is or with a dip of some kind. I am still searching for a use of the leftover purple water bath: a midwinter tonic? Pre-dyed cooking water to maintain the bright hue of boiled purple potatoes? Or, mixed with vermouth or gin for a gardener’s “shrub” cocktail called the Purple Thumb?

At summer’s end one always totes up successes and failures. It’s been the best tomato season ever: grapefruit-sized, sweet beefsteaks; endless cherry tomatoes; lush romas, etc. My system was the same as ever: raised beds in a hoop house; tall transplants in the ground by May 15, with all but top four branches removed, the bare stems planted on a slant to encourage extra root growth; moderate fish fertilizer applied at blossom-time; vines supported on tomato towers and twine; moderate suckering to maintain airflow; and care taken not to splash water or soil on the lower leaves when irrigating. It might have been the extended summer season, which was not too hot or too cool, just very steady, without extremes. I also use water that is warmed up by sitting in an open drum, and take care to close the hoop house each night to keep it above 50 degrees Fahrenheit in order for the flowers to set fruit. Plus, opening sides and ends early in the day to prevent heat rising above 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. Tomatoes are a full-time job. Take what you get, which in this case was endless flats of ripe tomatoes.

I finally was able to grow eggplants, avoiding the verticilium wilt built up in my soil from crops of potatoes and tomatoes. I used large pots filled with commercial organic mulch and soil, set on saucers to hold water, and placed along the southern side of the hoop house. Fish fertilizer was applied at blossom-time again, resulting in a steady supply of mostly Oriental eggplants, with a few globe varieties: a Mediterranean luxury at last. Melons, however, planted in the open soil of the hoop house, were a miss: the watermelons wilted away early, while the French Charentons remained small and tasted vapid. But the cukes, a bed of standard Marketmores and a single hill of pickling cukes grown on a wire trellis in the hoop house, produced a continuous bounty. I harvested the pickling variety every 2-3 days for one-jar batches of brined pickles cured 10 days in a cool, dark corner of the garage, and then fridged. Seasoned with my own garlic, bay leaf and dried cayenne peppers, along with allspice berries, cloves, brown and yellow mustard seeds, and peppercorns. A few out-of-area spices to season the local bounty.

The big miss was the pole beans I was trying to grow for dried beans. I had Scarlet Runners and Cascade Giants topping out on poles 15 feet high, with lots of hummingbirds fighting over the many flowers, but the actual bean pods were relatively few and thin. Our Oregon Blue Lakes, for fresh beans, adjacent to the other two pole bean varieties, did fine. As did the winter squashes, pumpkins, and zucchinis right next to the beans. Makes you wonder. Soil? Seed? Missing nutrient? Too much water? Or just too lofty hopes? One always frets more over what doesn’t work as planned.

The other so-so crop was the Bodacious corn, perhaps planted too early, and not soaked overnight prior to planting. It sprouted sporadically, and was not its usual reliable self. Corn, at the outset, doesn’t like cold feet. But the other two corn varieties, Peaches and Cream and a standard White, planted a bit later in warmer weather, with the seeds soaked beforehand, came on in a rush in September after the first heavy rains. Lots of fresh corn on the cob, as well as frozen corn in the freezer for the winter, which will go well with all the fresh winter greens and brassicas waiting in the garden. Always be grateful.

Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.