Veggies to plant soon for fall and winter eating

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Whether to save money, improve the quality of ones food or just have fun, it’s hard to see how planting a cool-season vegetable garden could be anything but a good idea. Add the fact that southern Maryland usually has long, beautiful Indian summers and you might come to the conclusion that a fall and winter veggie patch is just as likely to thrive as a spring and summer one.

If all you planted were salad greens for the coming fall, winter and early spring, you could probably save enough money for two to wine and dine at an expensive restaurant in downtown Cambridge. Or to finance the next unexpected car repair. Or buy more than a few organic gardening books.

A five-ounce box of organic salad greens at a supermarket named after a wild animal costs almost $3 today, more if you shop 20 minutes up the road at a store named for an outsized human being. Come winter, it’s bound to sell for more. How many salads will five ounces make?

A single packet of organic salad mix seeds that will grow enough greens to supply you for months costs considerably less than $3.

But why stop at salad? When I started researching how many vegetables not only stand up to frost, but can survive well into spring if protected, I was amazed, flabbergasted. Some, like cabbage, get tastier after the first frost. This is because the plant manufactures more sugar to help itself weather the extreme cold that’s on the way.

Without meaning to sound a depressing note, another very important reason to grow your own veggies is to avoid the chemicals – some known to be carcinogenic – that non-organic commercial growers spray on vegetables.

The roster of hardy vegetables (those that withstand frost) include such deliciousness as peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, turnips and collards, to name just a few.

Half-hardy vegetables, which can survive light frost – and heavy frost, if protected with devices like row covers and cold frames — include radishes, carrots, beets. Swiss chard and others.

Some veggies, even some half-hardy ones, like beets and carrots, boast an additional advantage. They self-store in the ground. Many root vegetables, if left in the soil and covered with a thick layer of straw or dry leaves, will last through winter. You can dig them up as needed. Parsnips, turnips and rutabaga are among this group. Potatoes are not.

Cool-season crops like the cold weather so much that their seeds won’t germinate if it’s too hot. This means they either must be started indoors now, in a cool basement or air-conditioned mudroom, then transplanted outdoors when four to six inches tall, by which time the sizzling temperatures of summer will have gone (hopefully).  Or, they need to be planted directly in the ground in the next few weeks and left to germinate and sprout when the weather gives them their cue.

For the very laziest gardeners among us, which probably includes myself, one can decide to plant veggies that won’t accept being transplanted and don’t need to go into the ground until September or even October, like shallots and garlic.
Shallots, fabulous in cooking, with a taste somewhere between onions and leeks, cost a huge amount at the supermarket. Garlic planted in fall tastes better and produces more than if planted in spring.

Key points for a successful fall/winter garden

At least one source I consulted maintains the key to having veggies last through winter and even into early spring is to plant them no later than early September so they can develop a good root system by the time the first frost of fall hits.
In Cambridge, the date may fall anytime from Oct. 13 to Nov. 10. There’s a 10 percent chance the first frost in any given year will be on Oct. 13, a 50 percent chance it will be Oct. 27 and a 90 percent chance it will be Nov. 10, etc. Any gamblers in the garden?

Don’t plant beans and onions near each other. Remember that some crops grow well in the shade, including Swiss chard, collards, kale, lettuce and spinach. In fact, avoid locating leafy greens in the baking summer sun. If necessary, use shading material to protect them.

Speaking of salad, consider planting Asian greens and the chickories, like escarole, endive and radicchio. They’re more colorful, often more nutritious and taste stronger than lettuce.

Make sure your cool-weather crops get enough water, especially when young. Drip irrigation is an excellent method.

When calculating how soon a crop will be ready to eat, add an extra 10 to 14 days to the “days to maturity” figure mentioned on seed packets. This is because the figure applies to seeds planted in spring; whereas, in fall, the days get shorter and the temperatures cooler, meaning it takes longer for plants to mature.

A cornucopia of cool-season crops and their planting dates follow:

Romano beans (bush) until end of July, Romano beans (vine) now through October, Kentucky pole beans early August, snap beans through Aug. 7, fava beans (like limas) in the fall, beets late summer, broccoli until Aug. 20 for setting out transplants (so plant now), Brussels sprouts through mid-summer, cabbage same as broccoli, carrots until Aug. 1, chickory (sugar loaf) through October, cress until Oct.1, endive until Aug. 20.

Kale, collards, mustard and turnips: Sow seeds until September 1 for fall transplants. Garlic mid-Sept. through mid-November, kohlrabi through Aug. 10, leeks late summer, lettuce until Sept. 1, multiplier onions (potato onions) Oct. 15 – Nov. 15, peas until Aug. 5, snow peas until September, sugar snap peas late summer, radishes until Sept. 15, rutabaga until Aug. 1, Swiss chard through July or October, depending on variety, spinach until Sept. 5, shallots Oct. 15 – Nov. 15.

Parsley, a herb that goes well with all vegetables and meat, also said to keep bugs and slugs away from the garden, sow in October. This one is slow to germinate, but don’t give up!

In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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