Plant a winter garden now? Yes, for residents of the North Olympic Peninsula, the maritime climate means the average minimum temperatures rarely drop below freezing(except for those living at higher elevations.)
But now, in the middle of summer, is the time to begin planning for and planting that fall/winter vegetable garden!
Ideally, plants will be sown late enough so that crops will not mature too early during the warm summer and fall, but soon enough so that they are well-established by the first frost. First frost in Clallam County, on average, occurs from mid-October to mid-November, but can come as early as mid-September. As a result, most winter crops are planted from mid-July through August in local gardens.
As summer crops are being harvested, think about a good location for a successful fall/winter vegetables garden. It is best to choose the sunniest and warmest place on your property to ensure the maximum amount of heat and light for your plants.
Raised beds are a perfect choice if available. The winter will bring rain; good drainage is essential. Excess or standing water can suffocate plant roots and cause bulbs to rot.
Rejuvenate the nutrients in your planting beds by adding compost.
In a small garden, fast growing vegetables such as spinach, leaf lettuce and radishes can be replanted, in succession, in the same area.
However, it is a good idea to rotate other crops as much as possible.
Crop rotation can be an effective way to control soil-borne plant diseases if the alternate crop is not susceptible to the disease. In general, avoid planting crops from the same family in the same area (for example, Brussels sprouts should not follow broccoli, kale or cabbage as they are all brassicas).
Select crops and varieties that are specifically suited for shorter days and colder temperatures. Seed packages provide information about planting dates, days to maturity and hardiness. Leafy green vegetables, root crops, and brassica crops are well-suited for winter gardening.
Leafy green vegetables such as kale, Asian greens, spinach, chard and leaf lettuce are perfect crops for the novice winter gardener. They may need to be covered with a light floating row cover in summer to protect young plants from insects and scorching. Space individual plants farther apart than summer crops to improve air circulation around the leaves.
Slower-growing crops such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and parsnips benefit from being sowed early in the summer. If you fall behind, look for winter vegetables starts at local nurseries and transplant into the garden in August.
Root crops such as carrots, leeks and turnips require well-drained soil, tilled to 12 inches. They need approximately an inch of water per week in the summer. Pile on one to two inches of dry soil around the stems to protect them from the cold. Root crops can be stored in the soil all winter. Harvest root crops in early spring, before they go to seed or become woody.
Continue to water all the crops until reliable winter rains begin. It may be necessary to remove heavy mulch to prevent excess moisture or mold. Do not fertilize vegetable crops late in the fall. Nitrogen encourages water-filled tissue, increasing susceptibility to freezing.
Floating row covers will provide some cold protection but should not be allowed to freeze on the crop. There are a variety of other ways to keep your plants warmer including cloches, cold frames and low tunnels. Simple ideas and plans can be found online.
Keep in mind, the weather on the Olympic Peninsula can be unpredictable. A crop that does well one year may succumb to a hard frost the next. Don’t lose heart; rarely does the whole winter garden perish.
Susan Kalmar is a Clallam County Master Gardener.