The Bay Area has a terrific year-round gardening climate, yet even at community gardens, most people drift away after the rains begin and nights grow cooler.
You can’t grow warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers or squash in the fall and winter, but you can grow a surprising amount of food if you plan ahead.
The easiest crops to grow are perennials that once planted keep producing year after year. The workhorse crop in my garden is perennial kale, which gets sweeter in cooler weather. I eat it every day in the winter and spring.
To choose what to grow, the most important factor is what you like to eat. Other considerations include what’s most economical to grow, which varieties you can grow from seed that aren’t available as transplants and what’s easy to grow.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension Service researched what makes economic sense to grow in a small garden. Ten of the top 15 vegetables in economic value can be grown in the cool season: green bunching onions, leaf lettuce, turnips (greens and roots), edible podded peas, onion storage bulbs, beets, carrots, broccoli, head lettuce and chard.
Interesting varieties you can grow from seed that aren’t easy to find in markets or nurseries include white beets, round carrots, scorzonera (the prized black root of Germany), red brussels sprouts, parsley root and purple-podded peas.
Many vegetables stop growing during the coldest months, but garlic, fava beans and edible-podded peas keep on going. All of them are easy to plant in the cold and wet, because you don’t need to take your gloves off to handle tiny seeds. You can plant garlic up to the beginning of December and harvest it in June. Fava beans do best if planted in early fall and kept moist on warmer days. They make a fine cover crop that adds nitrogen to the soil – or you can harvest the beans. Peas eaten off the vine are a treat. In my garden, the birds agree. They’ll eat 4-foot pea vines to bare stems if I don’t use netting or row cover.
Chard, miner’s lettuce and mâche are easy greens that will self-seed if you let them. I planted mâche five years ago, and it’s come back on its own ever since. It’s ready to eat in early February and goes to seed in April, when other crops are starting to produce. Miner’s lettuce is even easier – I didn’t have to plant it at all. It shows up with the winter rains and dies back when the rains stop.
One of the challenges of cool-season gardening is that as their food sources dwindle, birds and other wildlife are eager to nibble on tender greens or rummage for insects and worms in the compost of newly seeded garden beds. If you’re the only person on your block growing food, the birds and squirrels are avidly watching to see what you’ll plant for them.
The key to getting a crop in the cooler months is to protect your seedbeds and seedlings. Use cloches – clear, plastic gallon bottles with the bottoms cut off – for selected seedlings as well as row cover and netting.
For more information, visit the Santa Clara County website at www.mastergardeners.org/scc.html.