November is an ideal time to plant a cool-weather vegetable garden. In California, there are two distinct seasons for kitchen gardens: March through September, sometimes called the warm season; and the cool season, from October through April. The overlap during March and April means we can be harvesting cool-season crops while we’re planting summer favorites.
Each season has its own palette of edible plants and vegetables. We’re all quite familiar with warm-season veggies, but what falls into the cool-season category is often a bit unclear. If you cluster the choices into “families”, however, it’s pretty simple.
These “second season” veggies are leaf crops (all lettuces and chards), peas, root crops (beet, radish, turnip, carrot), and cole crops—broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.
Many of these vegetables are quick growers, meaning you can plant them multiple times during our cool-season period and have fresher-than-farmers-market harvests. Just as you marvel about the exceptional, old-fashioned flavor of home-grown tomatoes, you’ll be astounded at the true carrot flavors, the vibrant green flavors of chard and kale, and super sweet-tasting English peas.
Site your edible garden in full sun. Lettuce, chard and radish can take a bit of shade if needed.
Because we expect kitchen gardens to be highly productive areas of our home gardens, proper preparation is important to success. We take a lot out of the soil in the way of produce so we’ve got to supply plenty of nutrients in advance.
Prepare your planting area in three simple ways.
1. Add lots of compost, often referred to as soil amendment or planting mix. It’s impossible to have too much. This improves the texture of your soil, increases water retention, and makes it easier for plants to absorb nutrients. Remember, however, that compost or amendments are not fertilizers, even though there likely are nutrients in them.
2. Feed the soil. Here’s where fertilizers come in. In kitchen gardens, always use organic foods. At the same time you add compost, also add a pre-plant fertilizer. Later, after plants are established you’ll want to use an organic vegetable food.
3. Turn the soil to the depth of 8-inches. This will mix in your compost and pre-plant fertilizer into the soil. Well-turned, well-amended soil is especially important for root crops like carrots and beets. They’ll form misshapen veggies (or not grow well at all) if you don’t follow this step.
Remember, as with all edible crops, regular watering is important. If you’re planting from seed, keep the soil surface moist (not soggy) until seedlings sprout and the first true leaves appear. If you’re planting seedlings from packs, keep them regularly moist for at least three weeks while they send out new roots and become established.
Winter rains may be sufficient at times, but be sure to water your kitchen garden regularly in between rainstorms. As mentioned, many cool-season crops can be enjoyed rather quickly. Leaf lettuces, baby carrots, radishes, beet greens and kale can all be harvested as early as four weeks after planting.
Chris Gardner, California Certified Nursery Professional, is manager of the Mission Valley Armstrong Garden Centers. Email questions for him to growing firstname.lastname@example.org.