Pacific NW Winter Gardening Tips

Posted 3 Feb. 2013 by Kollibri

The importance of Winter Gardening

The concept of “winter gardening” in the Pacific Northwest gets a lot of lip service, but I haven’t seen that it’s very widely practiced. The lack of farmers’ markets at this time of year shows that not even the farmers do much of it. Very few CSAs have winter shares. (Are there any?) Most of the winter produce in the stores is from California.

FLAVOR is the first reason to plant a Winter Garden! Until you’ve had your first January-dug carrot, turned almost sweet-as-candy by the frosts, you’ve never had a carrot, as far as I’m concerned! I’ve heard that the reason many vegetables sweeten up in the winter is that their starches turn to sugars when it gets cold, and that perhaps this is a self-defense mechanism for the plant because sugars have lower freezing points than starches. Whatever the mechanism or the reason, the result is a treat for us eaters! Winter produce from California doesn’t experience the same coldness, so that flavorful shift doesn’t happen, and we’re missing out.

HEALTH is another reason to plant a Winter Garden. Eating in-season produce from as-close-by-as-possible is one of the healthiest ways to eat. I don’t know if it is biophysical or metaphysical or both, but if you eat food that is thriving in the weather you are experiencing, it will help *you* to thrive in that weather too! Conversely, eating out-of-season food from far away can be detrimental. In my observations, when Cascadians eat summer produce in the winter here, their immune systems are compromised. Cooling foods like cucumbers are contraindicated for wet cold weather.

SELF-SUFFICIENCY: With a garden full of roots and greens, you have the basis of a well-rounded winter diet. Stock up on rice or quinoa or noodles, and some beans, and you’re pretty much all set. Fruit is the only thing to cover, and if you focused on preserving in the Summer and Fall, then you’ve got that too.


Winter Gardening Planting Calendar

First, most people who want a winter garden start too late. The month when I have usually heard the most talk about winter gardening is September, by which time it’s too late to seed most things. In actuality, planting for winter harvest in 2013/14 starts now!

Important to remember: most vegetables harvested in the winter are *not* growing in the winter! They grew during the warmer, longer-day parts of the year. The mildness of our climate allows us the ability to leave all these plants outside rather than having to dig them up and put them in root cellars. Winter is the Outside Refrigerator Season, not an actual *growing* season for most vegetables.

In my seasons of farming in the City of Roses area, I found conflicting information about when to plant what, so I had a lot of trial and error. The best book for planting times is the “Maritime NW Garden Guide” from Seattle Tilth. I highly recommend buying this book. It is nearly complete. My own experiences have shown different planting times in some instances; these are reflected below.

DS=Direct Seed,
IN=Inside, in a hoophouse, greenhouse, under lights, or (if you have no other option) a sunny window sill.

Leeks – IN

Cabbage – IN
Leeks – IN
Onions – IN
Parsnips – DS
Celery – IN
Celeriac – IN
Parsley – IN

Parsnips – DS
Carrots – DS
Salsify – DS
Chard – DS/IN
Beets – DS
Kale & Collards – DS/IN
Parsley – DS/IN
Sorrel – DS

Carrots – DS
Salsify – DS
Chard – DS
Beets – DS
Kale & Collards – DS/IN
Parsley – DS
Sorrel – DS

Carrots – DS
Chard – DS
Beets – DS

Carrots – DS

Turnips – DS
Daikon radishes – DS
Spinach – DS
Peas – DS
Mustard – DS

Spinach – DS
Mustard – DS

These planting times are gleaned from my own experiences. Of course you might know of an instance when someone had great big huge kale plants even though they waited until August, but exceptions like that are nothing to count on! With most winter-harvested vegetables, the earlier you plant, the better, so that the plants have the most amount of time to size up by late Fall, when most of them stop growing.

What should you mulch for over-wintering? Definitely the Celery, Celeriac, and Beets.

What should you cloche (put under plastic or glass)? Spinach, Chard, Parsley, Mustard

What doesn’t need special treatment? Kale & Collards, Parsnips, Leeks, Carrots, Salsify, Turnips


Details on a few particular vegetables

My relationship with Parsnips began in 2005. I have found that Parsnips grow to their biggest size when they germinate between late Winter and mid-Spring. One of the best Parsnip crops I ever enjoyed was a patch that volunteered on January 31st (2010). These Umbel-family plants grow best in the cool wet of Spring, and somewhat in Autumn, and – unless irrigated regularly – not much at all in the Summer. So waiting until Summer is too late! You miss most of their growing season by seeding them in June or July, such as the conventional wisdom says. I have successfully dry-farmed big huge parsnips. They went a little dormant during the heat of summer, but got going again when the cooler weather returned. To get dry-farmed parsnips to size up, they need to have lots of space — like, on 18″ centers. Home gardeners don’t have the room for that, but if you have the space, try it. Dry-farming is less work: Less weeding, for one!

From watching when volunteers come up, and by seeding myself at different points in the year, I figured out that the best time of year to direct seed Kale & Collards seems to be April and May. Earlier and they aren’t growing fast enough to make it worth it; later and they don’t size up well. I don’t see a point to starting Kale and Collards in pots for transplant since they do so well when direct-seeded in April & May. Although if you have slug issues, planting in pots might be the best idea. If so, transplant out by mid-June. (Wait longer and it is getting too hot for transplanting activity).

The first time I ate a carrot dug up fresh in January, I could hardly believe my taste buds. So sweet! So crunchy! Almost candy-like! In ensuing seasons, I came to see that — with the exception of a few varieties — Carrots are a Winter Crop, not a Summer Crop. For most of the Carrot varieties I have grown (generally non-hybrid heirlooms) the flavor is much better once they have experienced a few frosts, when the starches in the roots turn into sugars. For carrots of a decent size by winter, plant from mid-Spring through early-Summer. July is too late unless you have great soil and LOTS of water (as in, almost daily irrigation). When you dig them up in December and January, you will be so happy! No, I have never known them to get “woody” from waiting like this. If that happens at all, it happens in the Spring of their second year.

Also called “Oyster Plant” because some people think it tastes like oysters. (I don’t.) A root vegetable popular in Italian cuisine, and very nearly ignored in this country. Easy to grow and a great addition to a winter root-bake. Don’t dig them all up though: the purple flowers they send up in their second year are a spectacle! Big and showy, they turn into puff-balls like giant dandelions when they go to seed. Totally worth it for their ornamental value, if you decide you don’t like the flavor.

These are a favorite of one of my farming partners, and he tried planting them in the Spring in multiple seasons. No matter when he did it, they would bolt before sizing up. He is the one who figured out that August is the best seeding time for them. Warning though: a hard frost will take them out. At first they will look like nothing happened, but then they will “melt” like a wax statue. So run out and dig them all up if a hard frost is on the way.

daggawalla is offering the “Pacific NW Winter-Gardening” seed collection.  This is seven-packet collection of seeds contains:

The set is discounted at over 25% off the price of the individual packets totalled up.  For Pacific NW gardeners, — especially in the Portland area — these seeds are virtually guaranteed to do well, since they were bred right here.

Check it out: Pacific NW Winter Gardening Set – $15.99 + S&H

We are happy to discuss planting and harvesting questions with anyone who acquires our seeds.  The packets have our phone number right on them!

Anyway, here’s hoping that more people get into Winter Gardening, if only because the results are so delicious!