Summer favorites differ from spring and fall crops in more ways than their temperature range. They actually come from different parts of the world, with different kinds of soil and growing patterns. If you understand those differences, it will help you to grow them with more success and less effort.
Think of the vegetables of spring and fall—lettuce, peas, fava beans, cabbage, broccoli, kale, radishes, spinach--even wheat, barley, and rye grains. They all come from Europe, which has a lot of coastline and very temperate weather. Livestock like cattle, sheep and pigs were integral to farming. Permanent fields were plowed with heavy doses of animal manure. In the North, summers are cool. Along the Mediterranean, the main growing seasons were spring, fall, and winter, because those were the only times when rain fell. So cool-season crops were dominant in both northern and southern Europe.
In contrast, most of our hot-weather vegetables--beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, winter squash, okra, sunflowers, and watermelon, as well as grains such as sorghum, amaranth, and quinoa all come from North America, South America, or Africa. The hoe, digging stick, and fire were the primary tools used to prepare the ground. The fields were carved out of jungle or brush, used for a few seasons, and then allowed to return to the wild. The primary source of nutrients was the burned or decomposed forest vegetation from clearing the land.
What does this mean for our backyard gardens? Well, it doesn't mean we should trade in our rototiller for a digging stick. It does mean that:
Winter has vanished like a blindfold coming off. This week, we woke to sun instead of frost. Up at the woodpile there was a good-sized turtle, with clods of mud on her shell from digging out of her winter den. What a relief--I had been hoping turtles weren't hibernating in the riverbank when it got swept away last winter. Apparently, turtles hibernate up in the woods.
I feel like I'm coming out of hibernation myself. A death in the family and other events took me away from home for a couple of months. The grass is long, the weeds are many, the greenhouse is empty, I've missed a whole season.......OK, stop that train of thought. It's great to be here. It is, actually, perfect. So, what can I do starting right now?
It's still a good time to plant peas, lettuce, and greens. There's even time to sow tomatoes and peppers—they'll catch up. My experience matches Sunset Magazine's controlled-trial result: Smaller, younger transplants actually do better than larger, older ones. (no transplant shock) So all right, I'll just stop worrying and sow some tomatoes. And peppers. Lots of them.
Right now, honeybees, bumblebees, and a gazillion kinds of little native bees and wasps have been working the yellow mizuna, turnip, and mustard flowers. Have you noticed that kale and mustard flowers smell like honey? The bees sure have! Mustard/kale flowers, arugula flowers, or cilantro flowers are a one of the best things that can happen right now. They make a delicious vegetable when they're young, like little broccoli. But even more important, they draw those gazillion little flying insects to your garden.
In a little while, caterpillars and their ilk will show up, hungry.
BUT, some of those those little gnat-sized wasps that have been drinking nectar from your kale flowers will lay eggs on or around the caterpillars....And the wasp's hatched-out larvae will eat the caterpillars!!!
Other winged nectar-eaters will be hunting and eating aphids.
And later, the various bees will pollinate your squash. The last couple of years, I've been hearing about zucchini plants that bloom and then the female flowers fall off without making a zucchini. That's what happens when you don't have enough pollinator insects. So, if you don't have any single or semi-double flowers in your garden, try to get some now, and plan for some later. Make your yard a pollinator destination.
Allyssum is a good choice. It likes spring weather, grows fast, and makes millions of little white flowers that bees and butterflies love. Farms and vineyards plant it to draw pest-eating insects. If there are no little flowers at all in your garden, you could buy a six-pack of alyssum to feed beneficials til your seeds sprout. Miner's Lettuce works the same way, but is also a delicious, juicy salad green. Poppies are a beneficial insect magnet. Plant seeds quick, and barely cover them--they like light and cold soil. Calendula can be planted anytime, has a million uses, and attracts beneficials. Plant calendula seeds deep—they need dark to sprout. Blue cornflowers (bachelor's button) are perfect with them.
When frost is over, cosmos, zinnia, sunflowers, and coreopsis are all easy to grow, fun to look at, and feed beneficials. I generally put a few zinnia seeds at the end of each corn block or squash row. Coreopsis and cosmos are lacy enough to fit easily with any vegetable. Just thinking about it is inspiring. I guess I'd better stop agonizing over jobs undone and go plant some seeds.
Going out to harvest food in my garden this winter is more like foraging in the wild. But it has taught me more than my tidier garden did about what to grow in the cold winter greenhouse or garden.
The ideal winter garden has rows of mature cabbages, kale, Brussels sprouts--all biennials that sprout in summer, and go to seed the next spring. They are renowned for winter-hardiness. Well, I was too busy this summer to start any of those.
At the last minute, during the late-October rains, I broadcasted seed into the light straw mulch on my beds. The seeds were a mix of leftovers and outdated seed that I had a lot of, so there were all kinds of things, including kale, carrots, turnips, cilantro and mustard. Oh, and the weeds--lots of those were already there, me being so busy and all. If you want to make it sound a lot more thought-out than it was, you could call it a "meadow garden."
As you can see from the picture, it grew in thickly--way too thickly. I went out knife in hand to harvest a couple of dinners, and try to thin things out. There were surprises, starting with was there and what wasn't.
The kale wasn't. Big kale plants from last summer were thriving, but what late-sown kale seedlings have survived are still just an inch high. The carrots didn't even sprout. Clearly, they need better conditions as babies than as adults. (And in fact the seeds of biennials like carrots and kale mature in June or so and fall onto warm ground.)
The champion fall-sprouters were (cultivated) cilantro and (wild) miner's lettuce. I've never had such great germination or such lush growth. The other things that did really, really well were mustard greens, amara, mizuna, bekana, tatsoi, and turnips. Plus wild dandelions, lettuce and chicory.
I realized that all the things that did well in this meadow garden are usually considered spring greens. And they're usually hard for me to grow--they bolt too fast. They bolt so readily because they are going to make seed that same year, in the fall. The seed will fall on cold ground. I had accidentally hit on the perfect strategy for late-planted winter crops, or for an unheated greenhouse all winter--plant spring greens.
Spring crops aren't usually recommended for winter because they are less hardy when full grown. But planted late by procrastinators like me, they're young and at their most hardy when the weather stops further growth. The plants are small, but they are so thick that there is still plenty.
I'm going to sprout some peas in a container and set it out. If you are willing to eat the growing tips in salad instead of waiting for pods, a pea patch rounds out the meadow garden.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.