Don’t Plant Your Winter Vegetables Too Late!
If you are planning to grow some winter vegetables, either for cold storage or to harvest fresh from cold frames, start scheduling your plantings by early summer. Spring is barely over by then, and I know it's hard to think about next winter so early in the season, but it's important to plan ahead if you want to have a successful fall or winter vegetable garden.
Some winter crops, like Brussels sprouts or large storage cabbages, can take 90-110 days to mature from the day you transplant the seedlings. If you start these crops from seed, you'll need to add another 3 weeks or so for the seedlings to reach transplanting size. So if you want to harvest your storage cabbages at the end of October, you may need to plant the seed as early as mid-June!
You'll want these crops to barely become mature around the time of your first fall frost. In addition, fall crops take longer to grow and mature due to the shorter daylight hours in late summer and fall. It can be tricky to get your plants to mature at the right time, as you simply don't know what the weather will be like in late fall.
If it stays warm very late, your crops could become too mature or large for good storage. I would normally plant these long-growing late crops a week or two earlier than their listed days to maturity, to make up for their slower growth in the fall. But with the extremely warm fall weather I've had to deal with over the last few years, I now prefer to have a little more flexibility to handle unusual weather conditions.
So, right now, I schedule planting my fall crops using their normal days to maturity. I can easily protect my plants with row cover to help extend their growing season for a couple of weeks, if the weather turns cool early. But I can't stop them growing and maturing if the weather stays warm late. Most of your winter crops store best if they are a little young, rather than too old.
I'm still learning how to adjust my planting schedule here at my new garden. My growing season is now much longer than at my last home, and I have a tendency to plant my fall crops a bit too early for this location.
Also, think ahead as to where you can plant your fall vegetables in your garden. I normally have a full bed of garlic and onions. My garlic is harvested in mid-July, and onions in mid-August or so. There's plenty of time to grow root crops like carrots or beets after the garlic, and various fall greens like kale or tatsoi after the onions.
I also plant fall crops after my early broccoli or peas, or after my mid-July harvest of early Yukon Gold potatoes. I can even fit spinach, lettuce, corn salad or other fast-growing greens after I harvest watermelon or winter squash in early to mid September.
If you find that a particular garden bed won't be free to plant for a couple of weeks past your normal fall planting date, see if you can start that fall crop as transplants instead (if you would normally direct seed that crop). That gives you an extra 2-3 weeks before you need to plant them in the bed. Unfortunately, most root crops don't transplant well and should be directly seeded into the garden soil.
Sometimes, if I find I have to plant a salad crop much later than normal, I just accept that they will grow into smaller plants before winter. I'll plant them a little more closely together to make up for that. And younger plants are usually more cold tolerant anyway, so I still have good crop to harvest, even if they are smaller than usual.
Starting root crops much later than normal is a bit more difficult. Carrots in particular need to reach a certain level of maturity to color up and become sweet. In this case, as the weather turns cold, I would give them the extra protection and warmth that a cold frame can offer, rather than just a row cover. This can extend the growing season for a few weeks longer.
So, sit down with your list of what you want to harvest this fall and winter. Write down the days of maturity for each crop, and which ones that need to be started earlier to grow as transplants. If your days to grow a particular crop are running short, look to see if there is a faster-maturing variety available that has the particular features you're looking for – such as flavor, good storage abilities, better cold tolerance, etc.
It will probably take a few years of experience to work out a good system for your own garden, but the benefits of enjoying fresh food all winter long are well worth it!
You, too, can feast year-round from your small backyard!