With summer harvest in full force, the last thing we're thinking about is planting a winter garden. However, Master Gardener Janet Miller says you not only need to be thinking about it, you need to starting planting it.
The mainstays of the winter garden, brassicas, need to be planted within the next few weeks to give them a head start at getting established before the days get even shorter and the temperatures colder.
Here are Miller's tips on getting started:
A winter garden offers many advantages over the summer one. Winter gardens are less work. In the summer, everything grows so quickly that you seem to always be harvesting, then dealing with the harvest. Winter vegetables keep nicely in the cooler weather so you can harvest as needed -- within reason, of course.
It takes less water to grow a winter garden, as seasonal rains provide most of it. Even in dry years, the cooler weather and less intense sun means beds don't dry out as quickly.
In the summer, a host of insects may be after our crops.
The list of vegetables you can grow in the winter is, surprisingly, three to four times longer than the list of summer vegetables. You can go crazy.
Of course, vegetables won't grow in the snow here in New England, but there's plenty of time left for cool-air loving crops.
The days are not only shorter, but the sunlight is less intense.
Do a soil test on your beds to see what they might be lacking. You can buy a do-it-yourself test at a garden supply store, or submit a soil sample to a professional testing company.
Just like the summer garden, you need to prepare your beds. Loosen the soil 18 to 24 inches down by using a digging fork, then lightly work in compost and fertilizer. Spread it at least 3 inches deep across the entire bed, then turn it in with the fork.
For beds where you'll be growing root crops -- beets, carrots -- skip the fertilizer. Those plants don't like it.
Brassicas need to be planted in the next few weeks, so that may mean clearing out some of your still producing summer crops. Leave the tomatoes -- they'll continue producing up to the first frost -- but you may want to pull out beans and squash that are nearing the end of their productivity.
Instead of planting in rows, consider planting in a grid. You'll be able to get more plants in a smaller space, and prevent soil erosion in the bed. When planting in a grid, think of the bed as a checkerboard and plant only in the red or black squares.
If you do grid planting, be sure not to neglect the nutrients. The more plants you have, the more they are going to deplete the ready supply. You'll need to add more compost or fertilizer.
If you put your winter garden in now, you'll need to protect them from the heat and sun. Plant, but use shade cloth to protect them until it cools down.
What to plant
Brassicas and greens are the starts of the winter garden, but don't forget about garlic and green onions.
Garlic should be planted in October, but you won't harvest it until June.
Bulb onions will do better if planted in February, but you can grow green onions as well as leeks over the winter.
It's almost too late to plant Brussels sprouts. They require the longest maturation time and need to be planted in July and August.
Broccoli will continue to produce offshoots after the head is harvested. Cut the head off at an angle so that water won't collect in the cut stalk.
Cauliflower is harvested by waiting until it has completely opened. Cut it off at soil level, then leave the roots to decompose until the whole bed is ready to be worked in the spring.
Romanesco, a blend of cauliflower and broccoli, is a popular winter crop. You can plant it up until Sept. 15. It produces one head per plant.
Cabbage needs all the space you can give it, as it makes a large plant.
Kohlrabi forms bulbs above the soil level and has leaves that shoot out at all angles. The leaves are edible. Pick when the bulb is as large as a tennis ball.
Root vegetables should be picked before the flower spike goes up. You can tell that's about to happen when the leaves begin emanating from the center leader, rather than the top of the vegetable.
Celery is challenging to grow, and it's not going to look like what you get in the grocery store.
Plant peas now for a late fall harvest; plant in October for an early spring harvest.
If you don't want to bother with growing winter vegetables, then plant a cover crop of legumes -- fava beans are a good one -- or wheat, rye and vetch.
Cover crops return nitrogen to the soil, improve tilth, reduce erosion and add biomass to your garden, all good things for growing your soil.