Grounded in the garden: Local experts share tips on seasonal planting

S.M. Lieu/Special to the Town Crier
Casey Carsten cooks with the produce she and her husband, Jack, grow in their garden, including lemons. Casey is a contributing writer and food critic for several Bay Area publications.

Gardeners, start your engines and get growing.

This is the optimum time to plant your winter garden – even though it’s still technically summer. Cool-season vegetables need enough warm weather to grow and develop good root systems before cold weather sets in.
If that’s not reason enough to plant now, consider other benefits, both practical and therapeutic, of starting a winter garden.

“People are realizing with this pandemic how dependent we are on the grocery system, which can often let you down because the produce won’t even be ripe with flavor or good for you because of the growing conditions,” said Judith Schwarz, a native plant specialist at SummerWinds Nursery.

“I think a lot of people are working in their gardens since the lockdown. If I felt claustrophobic, I could go down to the orchard and harvest oranges and other citrus or do some pruning – nothing like getting grounded in the garden,” said Master Gardener Cheryl Breetwor-Evans of Los Altos Hills.

Last spring, with people out of work and sheltering at home, growers and online retailers nationwide reported an increase in sales of edible plants, seeds and garden products. Locally, Jeff Christensen, senior buyer for SummerWinds, said there has been a “huge uptick” – 15% over last year at this time – despite its nurseries being closed during much of April and May.

Master Gardener Julia Lovin of Los Altos recommends winter gardens as a way for novices to get started. Compared to the summer garden, with its vast armies of insects and constant watering and weeding, a winter vegetable garden is a snap.

Los Altos resident Jack Carsten, who grew up in a truck gardening family, also extols the virtues of winter gardens and will be planting seedlings in mid-September.
Below, our featured gardeners discuss their gardens – even offering some sage advice.

Rooftop garden

The dream house that Breetwor-Evans and husband Eric Evans built atop a hill in Los Altos Hills gave new meaning to the word “green” and included a 1,200-square-foot roof garden and a 40,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system for irrigation.

Breetwor-Evans, co-founder of ShareData, began planning her winter garden a few weeks ago and started her seeding.

Usually she grows broccoli, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, kale, beets, sweet peas, arugula, cabbage, red and yellow onions, garlic and scallions – and sometimes bok choy. She has herbs growing all year round.

“I may give up on the cauliflower because it takes up a lot of room and has a tendency to bolt if the weather is too warm,” she said.

Her warning: Winter gardens are not as lush as spring or summer gardens. If the weather gets too warm, plants have a tendency to bolt and that can be frustrating.

Some of the veggies planted in fall, such as garlic and onions, are not ready until the following spring, so patience is required.

“It’s all very worth it,” Breetwor-Evans said.

Her favorites are lettuces.

“They are so much more flavorful than anything I can get at the store, and there are so many varieties,” she added.

Because the Evanses, like most folks, are not eating out, they are relying more on what they are growing.

“We’ve been making ‘zoodles’ and ‘squoodles’ out of our zucchini and squash – very yummy with marinara sauce,” Breetwor-Evans said.

Farm to table

Carsten and wife Casey are food aficionados of the first degree. She has been a contributing writer and food critic for several Bay Area publications, and he knows his stuff in regard to pizza ovens, barbecues, beekeeping and preserving the bounties of their garden.

It features a greenhouse and three raised beds, each 5-foot-by-35-foot, which date to approximately 1920. They were updated in 1978 by the Carstens, only the second owners of the property. There are 13 fruit trees, and chickens provide them with colorful eggs.

Carsten, managing director of Horizon Ventures in Los Altos, planted seeds in mid-July for what could be grown under the shade cloth in the greenhouse (onions, leeks, lettuce, kale, cabbage, herbs, radicchio and celery). In a couple of weeks, no later than Sept. 15, he will plant the seedlings along with seeds that need direct seeding such as rocket, mizuna and Frisee.

“You can plant a salad crop in September and enjoy fresh plants until March, so I plant lots – probably 20 varieties of lettuce,” he said.

According to Carsten, a winter garden hardly needs any weeding, as the splurge, witchgrass and crabgrass are dormant.

“The gophers go somewhere, maybe hibernate, but the snails come out in force in cooler weather. Copper strips and bait are needed,” he said.

He uses large amounts of compost and chicken manure when he turns over the beds in March. In September, he may lightly till, but he doesn’t use amendments.

Terraced hillside

Lovin, immediate past president of the Los Altos History Museum Board of Directors, loves her winter garden, some years even more than her summer one.

“For one thing, I don’t need to water much, if at all, once the rain comes,” she said.

She and husband Jim live in an ultra-modern minimalist home atop a hill in Los Altos. A deck off the great room is the perfect vantage point from which to view their terraced hillside garden. At peak harvest times, she could have her own produce stand.

In addition to gardening, she’s a beekeeper and added a bee “deck” to the garden because it’s hard to maintain a hive on a slope.

Although Lovin has planted seeds, she said prefers seedlings because “it’s easier to see what’s going on and you get results more quickly.”

Different plants have different challenges. She has found that kale (she plants Russian, curly leaf and dinosaur) and broccoli can attract aphids. Chard and beets can attract leaf miners.

“I try to hose them off when I see them, and I hang traps for leaf miners,” Lovin said. “And I’ve been known to spray with Neem oil or insecticidal soap on occasion.”
Her two garden challenges are deer and “tired” soil after years of nonstop growing.

Lovin said of the former, “I’m investigating building some kind of pen around my beds. My husband comments that these will be the most expensive vegetables we’ve ever eaten by the time it’s finished.”

As for the soil, though Lovin replenishes it regularly with homemade compost (from kitchen and yard scraps), it doesn’t seem to be enough. She’s going to buy a tester to determine the problem. Poor-quality soil leads to unhealthy plants that don’t fruit well and are susceptible to pests.

Seeds of wisdom

Here are some tidbits gleaned from our gardeners:

• At summer’s end, when the last tomato calls it quits, don’t pack those tomato cages away. Plant peas at their bases.

• Because most vegetables come in many varieties with different maturation rates, you can plant your winter garden all at once and still be able to harvest over several months. For example, plant six to 12 plants of three different kinds of broccoli and cabbage, with maturity dates of 60, 80 and 100 days. For beets and carrots, plant the same variety of each and harvest them at different stages of growth, as needed.

• Broccoli bonus: Unlike cabbage and cauliflower, which fruit once and then are no longer active producers, broccoli continues to produce after you harvest the main head. It grows smaller “heads” that can also be harvested and eaten. It eventually seeds up shoots that look like broccolini. You can eat these, too, but if they aren’t harvested, they flower and attract honeybees.

• When cilantro goes to flower, it attracts small beneficial insects.

• Leaf lettuce is very easy to grow. Pick the leaves as soon as they’re large enough to consume, and the plant produces more for quite some time.

• There are many perennials that do well in winter: sorrel, sage, artichokes, tarragon and chives.

• Beet greens are great for smoothies.

• The last word – in late March and early April, transplant tomatoes such as Early Girl. Then in early July, pick your first tomatoes and enjoy the fragrance of a newly picked fruit. Nothing can top it.

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