In Oregon we are blessed with a mild maritime climate. Not too hot in the summer, not too cold in the winter, means it’s possible with a little planning to have fresh vegetables coming out of your garden all year round.
Some considerations: how much space do you have? How much work are you wanting to put in? What is your goal for the percentage of your household’s winter vegetables that you want to grow yourself? What are your favorite vegetables? The biggest technical challenges to winter gardening are good drainage, good air circulation, sufficient daylight, and frost protection. The biggest secrets to success are good site selection, soil preparation, and choosing the right varieties for your climate and season.
We get a lot more rain in the winter compared to the summer. Low areas are subject to prolonged flooding, which is likely to result in rotting roots. Try to choose a relatively high area on your property to take advantage of better natural drainage. The sun is lower in the sky, and by late December we’ll be down to seven hours of daylight. Choose a site with maximum sunlight. In winter we typically get at least a few, and often several, high-wind, hard-rain, storms. These winds and heavy rains batter tender plants like lettuces. Although getting protection from wind and rain is often at odds with getting maximum sunlight, at least consider wind exposure, and consider the possibility of sowing and tending more delicate plants under plastic or glass protection.
Most Oregon soils west of the Cascade mountains are heavy clay soils that run to the acidic. These clay soils saturate quickly in high water, exacerbating the problem. For better drainage, work in a good amount of sand and silt to lighten the clay, lime to sweeten (neutralize) the acidity, and compost for tilth and fertility. According to Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seed Company and author of the peerless “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades,” just consider your clay soil to be an excellent subsoil, and build a raised bed of topsoil on top of it. This does not mean getting out a lot of lumber and making a major construction project out of it: raised beds can be simply heaped up. Till up the top three inches of your existing soil, then order some fine silt from your local gravel company; cover your site 6 inches deep with silt plus 0.5-inches of compost, plus 50 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet, and till again to mix in your native clay “subsoil.” This is a quick bootstrap place to start from. Next year if you feel more ambitious you can test your soil and do something more serious. But don’t let that stop you right now.
Choose good varieties
The same species of plant, say carrots, has hundreds of different varieties available. Some are better suited to early spring, some to summer, and some to overwintering. Some are bolt resistant in the heat. Some resist rotting in wet soil. Some are very delicate and require very light soil. Some are better suited to heavy soils. The point is, don’t be seduced by florid descriptions of flavor and color. Instead, focus on the traits suited to your growing conditions in the winter. Does that sound too hard? The easy way is to call Territorial Seed Company and have them send you their winter seed catalog. Really the majority of what you need to know is right there.
Even though we’ve just passed the middle of summer, the time to start your winter vegetable garden is right now. You have the whole month of August to get this done, but all your seeds should be in the ground by the end of August!
Weed and thin in September
Winter plants need a little more air circulation space between them to make up for the higher humidity; thin a little more aggressively than you do main season plants. And it’s important to get the first round of weeding done before October 1: growing in the winter is more difficult for the plant, so you want to eliminate any extra competition.
With a little planning you’ll be enjoying fresh vegetables out of your garden long after the first of January! Bonus tip: be ready with Salanova, YaYa carrots, beets, peas, and potato seeds: reliably in February we have a week of clear dry weather. Be ready to swoop and make an early planting in February; four years out of five, you’ll be successful and have these mature vegetables coming out of your garden by mid-May, when your neighbors are just gearing up to start planting!
Farmer’ Chrissie’s Favorite Winter Crops and Varieties
Carrots: YaYa mature in only 60 days but don’t hold well; Merida holds in the ground all winter and spring.
Kale: Toscana is the fashionable favorite and reliable; Red Russian kale is the deep-frost winner whose flavor improves when temperatures drop below freezing.
Parsnips: “Hollow Crown” has a more open leaf canopy resulting in better air circulation for the leaves.
Beets: there is no bad beet variety in Oregon. I prefer the milder flavor and bleed-proof color of golden beets and Chioggia beets.
Lettuce: “Salanova” from Johnny’s Selected Seeds produced all winter, 365 consecutive days, for us both in 2012 and 2013 with no protection from frost or rain!
Spinach: “Bloomsdale” is a trooper and will last until the first hard frost.
Cilantro and Parsley: these surprise herbs last all winter most years!