If, like me, you live in the Maritime Northwest, it’s time to do something that feels phenomenally weird and unnatural.
This thing is so bizarre that it took me literally years of gardening failures until I got it through my thick skull. Even now – with 13 years of practice under my belt – it still shocks me. But finally mastering this one weird gardening trick is the whole reason I started this blog. Once I figured this insane thing out, I figured I’d better tell as many people as possible.
And what is this one crazy, insane gardening trick?
Planting fall and winter vegetables at the right time. Which happens to be right now.
That’s it. Sorry for the Buzzfeed style lead in (number 7 will shock you!) but it’s July 2nd as I write this and it just occurred to me, like it does every single year around this time, that – OMG! – I need to get my fall crops started.
Planting fall crops needs to happen way earlier than it feels like it should. Brussels sprouts, fall and winter cauliflower, winter cabbage and broccoli and kohlrabi (the big winter-keeper types) should all be started sometime between mid-June and mid-July, depending on your particular microclimate, latitude, altitude, and when you hope to harvest.
Crazy, right? You’re thinking “Hey, summer has hardly started!” I know, I feel the same way. Right now, I haven’t picked a single tomato from my plants. The big late-summer harvest is probably 6 weeks away. How can it possibly be time to plant my winter cabbage? It doesn’t feel right, but it is.
Let’s do the math. Say you plant seed for your January King Cabbage on July 15. That cabbage takes 160 days to mature (at least – might be up to 200 days!). That’s about 5 and 1/2 months, which takes us to…you guessed it, January 1. (It’s an appropriately named cabbage.)
Most of the fall-type brassicas mature in about 70 to 100 days, and most of the winter or overwintering types mature from 100 days all the way up 270 or more. (Overwintering cauliflower is a diva like that!). So mid-July is about as late as you want to go on starting these crops.
You might be thinking, “Duh, Erica, I’ll just pick a cabbage variety that doesn’t take half-a-year to mature. I’ve got some cabbage seed left over from my spring planting and this variety matures in 60 days. Problem solved!”
Not so fast, friend. Be aware of what varieties you are planting for your fall and winter crop. Spring brassicas are bred to mature fast and be picked quickly, while juicy and tender. They can’t stand up to rain, hail or a falling barometer.
On the other hand, fall and winter varieties tend to sweeten as the days cool, and mature slowly, with tougher cell walls and heavy duty wrapper leaves to protect the plant from weather. They can often stand in the garden for months without bolting, rotting, or succumbing to weather or disease.
Overwintering crops (purple sprouting broccoli and overwintering cauliflower are my favorites) are just a miracle of plant breeding – they hang out all winter nearly mature, and then just as early spring creeps in, they explode into harvestable wonder when nothing else is ready in the garden.
So do seek out varieties that will work for when you plan to harvest them. Rule of thumb: vegetables that grow slower hold longer.
The urgency on planting your cool-weather crops gets even more pressing when you realize that plant growth rates slow down dramatically as we roll into the shorter, cooler days of September, and fall off a cliff once we hit October. So you can’t just plant a month later and expect harvest a month later.
This is a bit like mistiming a commute. City folk will understand. Let’s say to get from point A to point B takes you an hour if you leave at 7:10 am. But delay a little bit and leave at 7:30 and now you’re in much heavier commute traffic and the drive time doubles. A 20 minute delay on the front end costs you 60 minutes on the back end.
That’s kinda what delaying fall planting is like. Because the plants grow slower the further past the solstice you start them, a couple weeks delay in planting can mean a month or more delay in harvesting. Or – and this has happened to me and is actually more likely – no harvest at all, because the plants just never get large enough to crop before cool weather and low light check their growth.
So, the time is upon us. Start your fall and winter crops and don’t delay.1