Even' Star Organic Farm's Fall/Winter Gardening Tips

Prepared by Brett Grohsgal of Even' Star Organic Farm, 48322 Far Cry Road, Lexington Park, Maryland 20653.

The key things that you need for successful winter gardening are:

  • Enough light. At least 3 hours direct sun per day is vital. Remember, too, that your yard may be among the many that is actually more sunny in the winter than in the summer, as deciduous shade trees lose their leaves by Halloween. Remember also that the winter sun is not overhead at noon but rather arcs across only the southern sky. Try to figure out your light availability with these two bits of data.
  • Well-drained garden soil. A yard that typically stays flooded for days after heavy rains won't work unless you use raised beds, the single best approach for any backyard grower.
  • Winter temps at their coldest (no wind chill factoring) of 0 degrees F or so. This said, some of our varieties have tolerated much colder sustained conditions.
  • Ideally, mulch and some fertilizer, the best mulch being fluffy like raked tree leaves or pine needles to trap pockets of warmer air.
  • The right seeds.
  • Reasonable expectations. Focus on arugula, kales, collards, turnips, rutabagas, curly mustard, radishes, English cress, Swiss chard, tat soi, other great Asian mustards little known in the US market, chervil, cilantro, and perennial herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Regardless, winter greens in the small leaf stage are wonderful whole and raw in salads, and when they get bigger they are fine cut up raw or briefly cooked.

Now, how to succeed at the winter game:

  • Choose a site that is as sunny as you have, and with soils that are as well-drained as possible. By early autumn, dig it up and rake it well.
  • Sow appropriate seed 1/4" to 1/3" deep, no later than October 5th in the DC Beltway region (October 15th in the heart of the concrete jungle). Rows of greens need to be at least 8" to 12" apart. People with lots of space may want to have 18" or 24" between rows; gardeners with little space may have to 'honeycomb' their plantings to have no walkways at all. Each full-grown plant needs to be at least 4" from other plants (arugula, radish, and turnip) or, for all other varieties, 6" from any other plant. Use careful sowing, and eventual thinning, to get to this spacing. One tablespoon of seed should plant about 15 to 20 feet of row. DO NOT mix the varieties; each variety needs its own dedicated row(s).
  • Immediately water in well. You should water these every three days unless it rains. Water until the plants are well established (i.e., until they have 6 or more leaves), then back off and let rain and snow do it.
  • Beware of slugs. Evidence of their predation are no or missing seedlings. To find and kill, go out with a flashlight after you've watered. Slugbait works but is dangerous to birds, pets, and kids.
  • You may benefit A LOT from judicious fertilizing. Fish emulsion is very good. Follow the directions for small seedlings (usually half-strength) for when the baby plants have on average four leaves. Fertilize again in 2 weeks. And a full-strength dose right before the first freeze is of immense use.
  • You will do best if you mulch the plants with tree leaves from your yard. Wait until the plants are big enough (4" - 6" tall), then mulch all around but not on top of each plant. This aids survival even in ice storms.
  • Harvesting has a few steps. For greens (not roots), a) when the plants have leaves at least 1 1/2" long, thin the rows such that there is a strong plant every 6". The ones in between, and the runts, are best harvested destructively for salad greens. An overcrowded row leads to higher mortality from really cold weather. Thereafter, b) harvest only a few leaves from each plant as needed. At Even' Star, we harvest no more than 30% of total leaves per plant, every 10 days (mild weather) or 6 weeks (deep winter). The plants need 70% of leaf matter left intact to grow more leaves. For rutabagas, radishes, and turnips, gently feel with your fingertips to find the plants big enough to pull, then go for it, leaving the little ones to grow more. Try to harvest radishes before the first hard freeze. They're delicious with frosts, but cannot take deep soil freezes.
  • Harvest only when the plants are thawed. Patience is a real virtue, and harvesting frozen leaves is very challenging, if not fatal, to the plant that remains.
  • Finally, the greens will flower and stop making leaves for you sometime in April or May. Don't expect these to grow through the warm months. Instead, plant the heat-loving summer crops in that season, and reserve greens for the cold months.