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Dear Garden Gal,
Is it too soon to plant a winter garden? Or should I wait till after those surly high school trick or treaters quit tramping through my yard even though I give out regular sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Plus their costumes stink! Whiskers and a pillow case is not a costume!
-Anxious in Arcadia
You’re right to question planting times in Southern California. Our extended summer temperatures plus unattended teens roaming on a sugar high are a recipe for heartache. But since winter vegetables and scruffy trick-or-treaters are annual occurrences let’s make the best of them. Cool crops such as lettuces, some onions, members of the Brassicaceae or cole family (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, radish, collard greens and broccoli), as well as peas, many carrots, spinach and chard, all depend on, yes, cool weather.
And even as we anticipate the optimal 60 degree growing temps by Thanksgiving, daytime highs are still approaching 90 degrees, which is just too flicking hot for tender herbaceous plants. Wait until early November to plant. And then, plant part of your winter garden by seed, adding another row or variety every week or two as the weather cools.
Meanwhile, Grit your teeth and tamp down all those witty comments you practice in the mirror just before Jack Skellington lands on your roof with his reindeer. Because deep down, you know very well it just doesn’t advance your property values to be flippant with teenage visitors ringing your doorbell. Go on; give them two Peanut Butter Cups. They will outgrow this, I swear, as St. Joseph is my witness. Eventually they’ll settle into a career and pay into your social security benefits.
Be cool. Be proactive. Do your garden prep.
Clean out and turn under spent summer plants. Amend your beds with organic mulch, such as composted manure or composted green and brown matter from your lawn. Brassicaceae thrive in deep fertile soil. Booyah! Organic matter saves on fertilizer cost and application time. If using raised beds, check for signs of burrowing animals and plug or block holes now with wire mesh or inverted glass bottles, which rats can’t chew through.
If planting your winter garden from seed space rows 24” apart, setting seeds ¼” deep in groups of three to five every two inches. As they sprout, thin to 12”, using the thinnings in salads, stir fries, sandwiches or for garnish. Be sure to thin for maximum crop yield. Water regularly – slowly, two times a week – and mulch to conserve water and prevent weed germination. Remember that drought can stress the plants, especially as they emerge, and that weeds harbor pests and pathogens, so eliminate them.
Insect pests, especially harlequin beetles, favor cole crops. Your best prevention is crop rotation. If possible, do not plant in the same location for three years. Lightly turn the soil regularly, to kill eggs and larvae which may nest in the soil, taking care not to disturb feeder roots extending outside of the plant’s drip line. Floating row covers will help block insect infestations and bird traffic, but vigilance works, too. If buying plants from the nursery, ask about resistant varieties which may be immune to soil-borne pathogens. Now go on. Relax. Answer the door. Happy Halloween.