Winter may seem a long way off, but if you're wanting to grow a winter garden, the time to start is now, says Contra Costa Master Gardener Janet Miller.

Miller, garden manager at Our Garden, offered tips and advice for those planning to grow produce this fall and winter.

Benefits

  • Winter gardens have some advantages over the summer ones. Vegetables grow more slowly and give both the garden and the gardener a bit of a break from the hectic pace of summer.

  • Growing your own produce is not only gratifying and tasty, but by living off your own land you are reducing your carbon footprint.

  • Backyard gardening also helps maintain genetic diversity. While farmers limit their varieties to ones that hold up well for shipment and production, the backyard gardener doesn't have those limits.

  • The cooler weather means you don't have to be in a hurry to harvest. Most produce can keep on the vine until you're ready to use them.

  • There are fewer weeds and insects to deal with.

    Getting started

  • The garden, whether it's a winter or summer garden, needs three key elements to be successful -- healthy soil, the right location, and the right plant at the right time.

  • Feed, water and grow the soil, and the plants will take care of themselves. Spread compost and fertilizer over the entire bed, not just where plants are placed. Water the entire bed, too.


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  • The more you improve your soil, the better your garden will be.

  • Try for 5 to 6 percent organic matter in the soil by adding compost, growing cover crops that will leave biomass in the soil, and giving the soil what it needs in the way of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

  • It's a good idea to test your soil to see what you've got and what you might be lacking. A simple $10 test, available at nurseries and home improvement stores, will give you the basics. A professional analysis will give you a more detailed assessment.

  • Although more expensive, a professional soil test can save you money in the long run. If you are adding things to your soil that it doesn't need, you are wasting money on those supplements.

  • Before planting, prepare your beds by double digging or loosening the soil.

  • After fluffing up the soil, cover the entire bed with 4 to 5 inches of compost. Add amendments on top of the compost and work them into the top 6 inches of soil. That's the zone where the plant roots will be looking for nutrients.

  • Water gently before planting.

  • Don't plant in rows. Instead, plant on a grid pattern. Imagine a chessboard on top of your bed -- plant in the red squares.

    Time to start planting the winter garden.Joan Morris/Staff
    Time to start planting the winter garden. Joan Morris/Staff ( Joan Morris )

  • Growing plants closely together will improve your yield and the plants will help shield the soil.

  • Take care to give larger plants plenty of room to grow by enlarging the grid.

  • Know what conditions plants do best in. Brassicas -- cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower -- need full sun while leafy greens require less.

    Seed or seedling?

  • The growing season in the winter is longer than the summer, extending from early fall to early spring, but the weather is cooler and the days are shorter. Getting winter crops established before winter sets in will help with production.

  • Brassicas should be planted now through mid September to give them ample time to get established. They need a large leaf system to help them absorb as much light as possible. If you wait until October, they won't have time to get established before the cold hits.

  • Some plants can be sown directly in the ground, while others will do better planted from seedlings.

  • Carrots, turnips, rutabagas and parsnips don't transplant well, so they should be sown directly in the garden.

  • Many winter crops need to be planted or sown by mid September, but take care to protect them with shade cloth. It may still be too sunny or too hot for the cool weather crops.

  • Starting in flats, rather than directly in the garden, can save on water and will give your summer crops a few weeks longer in the beds.

    What to grow

  • Spinach and lettuces can be planted now throughout October, and replanted at the end of February.

  • Garlic should be planted in October for a July harvest. Be sure to add a lot of amendments to the soil, and make sure the soil drains well.

  • Onions can be planted now, but Miller has the best luck planting them in late January through early February. The winter can be too damp and cold. In an experiment at Our Garden, we found that onions grown from seedlings, rather than sets, did far better.

  • Arrugula can be started now in flats or broadcast in the bed.

  • Brussels sprouts need a cooler climate, so those planted in areas closer to the coast do better than those planted inland.

  • Cauliflower should be planted now. Buy self-blanching varieties or tie the leaves around the heads to keep them from turning brown.

  • Plant cabbages now. If space is an issue, try Napa cabbage, which grows more vertically.

  • Kohlrabi is a colorful addition to the garden and is easy to grow.

  • Carrots take 21 days to germinate, and the seeds much be kept damp through the germination.

  • Bok choy can be planted now. When harvesting, cut an inch above the crown and the plant will continue to produce four or five more yields.

    Our Garden

    Our Garden offers free gardening classes 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday, through October. The garden is located at Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions and diagnose disease and pests, and there is a wide variety of plants for sale.

    Next time in the Garden: Bokashi Composting with Master Gardener Bonnie Dwyer.