California’s Central Coast has a long growing season which allows us to divide our vegetable plantings into two time frames; warm season and cool season. Warm season crops are tender plants that would be killed off by frost like tomatoes, peppers, squashes, etc. Cool season crops are those that can either withstand frost, bolt too quickly in warm weather or both. Cool season crops include everything in the cabbage family like Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli and cauliflower along with root crops like beets, turnips, rutabagas and bulbs like garlic and onion. Although everyone seems to go gaga over tomatoes and peppers, making warm season gardening so popular, I actually prefer the cooler season for reasons I will explain and strongly encourage everyone who can try it to do so.
Because we have yet to encounter frost, I am able to direct sow all of my cool season vegetables. Root crops actually prefer to be done this way. This means no extra purchases of seed cups and trays and no worries about where I’m going to put them so they get the most light. I simply plant seeds in the ground as directed and water them in.
Timing and Watering
I normally put in my cool season garden right about now, early to mid October. The soil is still nice and warm. We have passed almost all of fall’s heatwaves (those late triple digit days) and the days are still long enough that I can get in some gardening time after work. Waiting until most of the hotter temperatures pass means I am not nearly as stressed to get new plantings watered each day and once they become established I’m watering no more than once per week, even in my very sandy soil! It also means that the water I am applying to the garden has a better chance of getting to the plants before it evaporates on the surface. Warm season gardening uses considerably more water because not only do you lose more to evaporation, plants actually need more due to transpiration (evaporation of water from plant leaves). Winter rains, when we do get them, also mean I can go a month without watering any of it.
Pest & Problems
I find cool season gardening to be much more problem free than warm season when it comes to pests. During the early spring, earwig populations are so large rows of seedlings can be mowed down in a night if not properly protected. Until the birds are nesting and feeding young and the lizards are venturing out during the day, these populations go unchecked and can be a great deal of work to get under control. By the time we come around to cool season gardening, the birds and reptiles have reduced the populations considerably. Dryer conditions around the yard also means the bugs have to go farther to find moist hiding places. And one of the reasons I wait until a bit later to start my cool season gardening is the cabbage white butterfly. As long as the temperatures are warm, these butterflies will be laying their eggs on any cabbage family plant they can find. Their offspring caterpillars will then hatch and devour young seedlings or riddle larger leaves with holes. Waiting just a few weeks means fewer adult butterflies and fewer adults means fewer caterpillars all without the need for chemicals or covers.
With the exception of seedlings, I find that for the most part birds leave cool season crops alone. Unlike the berries and stone fruits which birds love and greedily devour, they seem to pass on kale and broccoli. They also mess with the garden less in general as they are not hurriedly looking for nesting material or preparing to feed babies.
Cool season crops include some of the healthiest vegetables you can eat, your green leafy ones. Several varieties of kale, spinach have lots of potassium and iron. Root vegetables can give you potassium, beta-carotene, iron and calcium. They are also versatile in their culinary uses. Leafy greens can be added to soups, sauteed, used in salads or blended into smoothies.
Length of Harvest & Long Storage
Greens like leaf lettuces, kale and spinach don’t need to be harvested all at once. You can start harvesting when the plants are small, only taking a few of the outer leaves and continue with this method throughout the season. Since they grow from the center out, they will continue to grow and produce more. With the vertical lettuce method, I am able to produce enough to have salad for two several nights a week once it becomes established. Lettuce season is also longer because most will tolerate some frost and because the temperatures are cooler, they don’t bolt.
Although homes in warmer climates don’t tend to have root cellars, root crops like beets and carrots can simply be left in the ground longer this time of year or harvested and stored in the refrigerator for weeks. I like to trim, wash and dry crops before placing them in a plastic bag and storing them in the crisper. Although not quite as tasty as root vegetables just pulled from the ground, they will still work cooked in stews and soups.
So if you find yourself a bit overwhelmed in the spring and summer seasons with the needs of life in general and a vegetable garden, why not give the slower season a try? Cool season gardening may just be perfect for you.