Has the drought in California caught your attention? Near daily stories in the major national newspapers about water shortages in the Central Valley have been shouting at me. Photos of dry fields empty of vegetables are starting to scare me. Just last year I was worried about neonicitinoids killing off the bees and other pollinators needed to pollinate the almond groves in California, now it seems there won't even be any flowers for the reduced populations of bees to visit. No water, no crops.
Will the cost of vegetables, fruits and nuts become prohibitive? Sure, the Central Valley is only one region, but it is a major region of food production for the United States. The cost and quantity of vegetable, fruits and nuts is bound to be impacted. What can we do?
We don't have an abundance of water in the Texas Panhandle, but we still have water. It's not rationed or cut off to us homeowners. It used to be that individual localities grew a lot of their own food. We didn't have the variety to choose from at all times of the year like we do now, but it was a common practice to grow what would grow in one's own garden. We are lucky enough to have a farmers market here in Amarillo, but it doesn't begin selling until July, closes in October, and the number of varieties are limited (compared to other locations, like Santa Fe Farmers Market). I'm looking forward to an extended local market season into the winter and spring with tunnel grown crops (someone please run with this idea).
Our weather in the Texas Panhandle is volatile, especially in spring. Warmer weeks are interspersed with cold and snow, accompanied with wind. It doesn't invite early season gardening. But these weather hindrances can be modified and tamed enough to successfully grow cool season vegetables beginning in late winter/early spring and at the end of the calendar in fall and early winter.
Grow blankets, or fleece as it sometimes is called, is a must for the early vegetable garden. When colder temperatures briefly descend, the addition of a polytunnel provides enough protection to keep snow, ice and wind from damaging tender plants intended for the table. Fleece helps keep the insects out, holds in moisture, preventing dessication, and keeps the wind from thrashing the crop.
Today, February 14, we enjoy nearly 13 hours of sunlight, which will steadily increase until the summer solstice in mid-June. With increased day length, soil temperatures warm. This is ample enough sunlight and warmth to germinate seeds, and with the above mentioned protection, to begin one's vegetable garden. Severe cold temperatures below 15° are over for this winter, but we will experience below freezing temperatures through mid April. These cool season crops thrive in the colder temperatures especially when protected with a simple fleece blanket. But even if the temperature does drop colder, these plants can handle it. I've germinated seeds in my garden under the polytunnel in January. The fleece and poly tunnel warm the soil enough for this early season germination.
For the next 7 days, temperatures locally are forecast to be above average, providing a window of opportunity for planting. It is about this time nurseries and big box stores stock onion sets and bulbs. Seed racks have been out in stores for weeks. Plant them this week! Onions are quite cold hardy and will survive without mulching – but please do mulch them to help them out. They, too, can be covered with fleece to promote faster growth. Even a little space in one's yard, 2' x 6' or 4' x 8' can produce some pretty tasty treats. For new gardeners, start small, choosing just 1 to 3 vegetables to grow. One can expand as the seasons and years progress.
Follow the usual guidelines for amending soil for vegetable crops; they're heavy feeders. Ideally, the beds were amended earlier. Previously amended beds should be boosted with 1-3 inches of composted. If just starting out, amend now with 4-8 inches of compost, plant and lightly mulch until the seeds emerge. Keep moist during the whole process. (Refer to section on Amending the Soil and adding compost, please read the section on persistant herbicide carryover in compost.)
Cool season greens and lettuces will grow if planted now. All the lettuces – green leaf, red leaf, romaines, oakleaf, butterheads, mesclun mix, both spicy and mild should be planted now (protected with fleece). Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, radish, broccoli raab should be started now as well. Kale, chard, spinach, arugula, mizuna, mache, Chinese cabbage, totsoi, escarole, endive, radicchio, parsley, cilantro too. All these can be planted in February and March for best results. What is enticing to me is the varieties available. Many people grow them for their greens – they are all edible and very tasty when the leaves are small. Within 4-6 weeks, baby greens are ready to be harvested. Either cut and come again, or thin out, eating the whole plant, root and all after washing. Best of all, the home gardener controls not just what variety of vegetable to grow, but the input as well. If you don't want your vegetables sprinkled and sprayed with chemicals, you can grow them free of the substances. Home gardening shouldn't need pesticides, and certainly not herbicides with such small gardens, when compared to large scale agriculture. When one follows the organic guidelines, it's easy to be organic. (Click here for organic principles.)
When temperatures heat up, often in May, these cool season crops will bolt or wither. Let them go and plant the warm season vegetables of beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, melons and okra (corn takes up too much room in the average city garden). Then around Labor Day, it time to pull them up and replant for the fall and winter. In our USDA Cold Hardy Zone 7a and AHS Heat Zone 8 area, gardeners can enjoy four season vegetables fresh from their own backyard. Over the years, I've been able to harvest a few vegetables in every month of the year. There's nothing more fulfilling then running out to the garden in January, pulling back the poly tunnel and fleece, pulling up a turnip for soup, cutting some parsley for flavoring, and gathering the lettuces for a salad on a cold winter's day.
- For more on fall and winter gardening, click here.
- For information on our monthly gardening calendar, click here.
- Four Season Harvest, Organic Vegetables from your Home Garden all Year Long, Eliot Coleman, Revised edition, 1999, Chelsea Green Publishing is one of the best books on fall, winter and early spring gardening.
- Mother Earth Magazine has many articles online about winter/fall vegetable gardening, as well as during the summer.
Angie Hanna, February 14, 2014