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Reasons for a Winter Vegetable Garden

Fava Blooms

Fava Blooms

Anita is teaching a class at Heather Farms about planting a winter vegetable garden and as part of the prep she asked me for a list of reasons to have a winter veggie garden. She’ll probably do the Socratic thing and get the class to come up with its own list, but I thought I’d post my list and see if anyone had other things to add. The winter veggie garden for us is loosely defined as the Oct/Nov planting and the Feb/March planting times with harvests starting in February and lasting into the summer or beyond.

  1. Favas!!!!
  2. The winter garden requires less time and effort than the summer garden — less watering, fewer pests (more slugs and snails, but fewer leaf miners, cabbage loopers, and marauding baby skunks), less staking & pruning? (peas need training and favas need some kind of support, but that’s compared to beans, tomatoes), onions and garlic and many other cool-season crops are ridiculously easy
  3. A few of those winter crops are specialty items — Favas turn starchy by the time they make it into stores, Mache (corn salad) can cost as much as $3/oz, I never buy Garlic Greens or Shallots but love them from the garden, you can never use a whole clump of store bought Parsley, Collards and other greens taste best with a touch of frost in them, I’m trying to think of other highlights of the winter garden?
  4. It makes for healthy soil and insect populations — nitrogen-fixing cover crops are fundamental, the winter garden provides food for the microbes and insects to keep those populations high, living mulch protects the soil from rain
  5. It looks better — it avoids that bare, bleak, abandoned look that a veggie garden can get
  6. Favas!!!!
  7. It’s productive — it takes advantage of our mediterranean coastal climate, we always get a warm spell in January, and February and March often alternate rain with sunshine in a way that many plants like, productivity is measured in bushels per acre, so get bushelling
  8. Fog belt tomatoes may be lousy but the early spring greens are world class
  9. You don’t stop eating food in the winter, so why would you stop growing it?
  10. It’s the easiest time to plant other perennials so why not edible perennials — strawberries and artichokes do best with late October planting, bareroot blueberries are available in February
  11. Have you seen the price of arugula at Whole Foods lately?
  12. It gives you something to blog about
  13. Snap Peas!!!!
  14. All the cool organic farms are doing it
  15. Did I mention Favas?
  16. Satisfaction — you have to temper your expectations, some things will fail, but it is conversely immensely satisfying to eat a home grown meal in early February

Also, I just think it’s good form. Please comment if you have other reasons that I didn’t think of.

Front Yard Vegi Gardens Are Okay (in Richmond, CA)

dodge vegematic with winter squash

Rumors have been circulating that fruits and vegetables might be illegal to grow in the front yards and hellstrips of some Bay Area cities, but the city of Richmond investigated and found that there are no ordinances against them. The investigation came from the top, from our mayor, Gayle Mclaughlin.

‘“If it is indeed a Richmond law, I would like to ask the city attorney’s office to change/cancel this ordinance and bring it to council for a vote ASAP. I would be happy to sponsor such an ordinance change.” 

Assistant City Attorney Mary J. Renfro came up with the definitive answer, reached after consulting the city’s Health, Public Safety and Welfare and Zoning codes. 

While some legal provisions require yard maintenance and “prohibit nuisance conditions that might attract trespassers and vermin,” none of them suggests that it is impermissible to grow fruit or other edible plants in the front yard.

It’s good that the mayor checked on vegi gardens and established that they’re okay, because there has been a front yard vegi garden movement in my Richmond Annex neighborhood for the last couple of years. Six gardens within a block of each other grow vegetables (these are small blocks with 2-5 houses per block, so that’s a high percentage) and, a couple of blocks away from them, another one converted their lawn to vegetables three months ago. 


onions and juniper

The first of the gardens, the one that began the trend, is a front yard of veggies grown in raised beds of mortared stonework from the juniper/ivy era of California landscaping. It is far and away the tidiest of the gardens, and it produces an impressive quantity of food throughout the year. Even when large sections are only bare dirt and small seedlings or when the plants get raggedy at the end of their harvest period, the walls and the orderly planting style and to some extent the pom-pommed junipers always make it clear that this is a well-maintained garden.

carrots and juniper

Photos of more gardens are below.


Vegi Garden Flowers

variegated iris

variegated iris

We’ve been collecting photos of the winter vegi garden for a class that Anita will be teaching in the fall at Heather Farms, and this is our latest and possibly last crop of photos. We’re letting some things–the mache, the meadowfoam, the miner’s lettuce–go to seed, and a few things are entering or yet to reach their harvest phase–the favas and alpine strawberries, and later the onions and garlic–but most of the garden is now heading towards the summer phase, so this might be the last of the photos. One of the ideas of the class will be that folks should try to have a lot of flowers, including natives and perennials, mixed in with the edibles to attract beneficials. I put rest of today’s photo harvest below.

Golden Mummies

golden mummies & aphids

golden mummies & aphids

Please excuse the rather unpleasant photo. Aphids are gross, but golden mummies are one of the best things I ever learned about IPM.

We’ve had a couple of outbreaks of aphids this spring, first with the lupine when it put out a big flush of new growth and now on our kales as they begin to bolt. Golden mummies are the brownish, mummified carcasses of parasitized aphids; wasps lay their eggs in the aphids and the larva eat the aphids from the inside, leaving the dried husks. If you aren’t familiar with them, click on the photo and you should be able to see the difference. In the garden, another way to tell the difference is that aphids move and mummies don’t.

When you see an outbreak of aphids, the presence of golden mummies is one sign that natural predators are present. Count the aphids and golden mummies on a leaf, and, if the outbreak includes at least 10 percent golden mummies, the natural predators will deal with the outbreak for you. Spraying would kill the natural predators along with the aphids and therefore be counterproductive, though aiming a spray of water against the aphids to knock them off (which actually kills a large percentage of them, while not harming the beneficials) is okay if you want to speed the process. 

In the photo, I count 14 golden mummies (mostly on the right, but three in the population of aphids on the left) and estimate about 100 aphids, so our IPM is working. Our earlier outbreak on the lupine was the same way, and it resolved itself without intervention.

ryan 4/22

Mâche, My Favorite Green

mache, corn salad

mache, corn salad

Tiny little mâche. The plant in the photo is approaching harvest size, and it’s still dwarfed by the trowel. I added the trowel for scale, but it reminds me of Spinal Tap, “Our Stonehenge monument was in danger of being trampled by DWARVES!”

I find mâche is really easy (although slow) to grow and a pain in the neck to harvest and totally worth it. You have to pick and clean a bunch of little plants to make one single salad, but it has the best flavor of any single green, it’s supposed to be really healthy, and the ease of growing it completely makes up for the effort of harvesting. Our plants are all volunteers from the first batch I grew a few years ago, the only effort with growing them has actually been to keep them properly thinned so they can reach a decent size; I’ve thinned ours at least four times this year. They can apparently be a bit invasive–one of the common names, corn salad, comes from it’s tendency to naturalize in agricultural fields–though I don’t think they are a problem in the Bay Area.

Last Christmas, the organic market near our house was selling 4 ounce packages for $13. That was early in the season and unusually high, but even at half that price, it’s gonna be on the list of things I have to grow for myself. It kind of fascinates me to think that someone could charge so much money for something that is so easy to grow.

FromSeedToTable has a post about golden corn salad, which I’ve never grown, but sounds worth trying.

ryan 3/14

Evergreen Pesto

We grow a lot of basil for pesto, freezing large batches using the ice cube tray method (a revelation when I heard about it: mix your pesto, leave out the cheese, freeze it in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in ziplocks, defrost a cube at a time and serve, preferably on a baguette with a poached egg and cheese), but we like parsley pesto just as well or even better than the basil stuff and we’re able to have it fresh year-round. I used to deride the parsley batches (2 cups parsley, 1 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup walnuts, 2 cloves of garlic, salt, pepper in a blender) as poor-man’s-pesto, but now I think I prefer it; it tastes really fresh and green, and it’s much easier for us to grow, not caring about our lack of summer heat. Last year’s parsley plants are starting to bolt, so I planted the next batch this past week, six plants. With any luck we can keep production going without any significant lag.

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