Growing winter vegetables is fun and nutritious

A bed of lettuce will provide many salads

Our Central Valley’s wonderful climate is conducive to year around gardening, something the rest of the nation likely cannot relate to. I normally get my seeds at our local Lockhart seed store, but in July, I only needed a few seeds for my winter garden, so I went to a nearby big box store for some seeds. I couldn’t find a seed rack so when I asked, “Where are the seeds?” the clerk told me that corporate headquarters in North Carolina had ordered all the seed racks removed to make way for other merchandise. Apparently, garden seed planting season was over in North Carolina so that must be true for California. I subsequently went to another nearby big box store and it had three seed racks available. Their corporate headquarters is in Atlanta, farther south than NC, or maybe the management is just smarter.

I am a gardener who pays attention to holidays; rose pruning starts New Year’s Day, garlic planting just before Columbus Day and July Fourth is the time to plant the Brassicas for a winter garden. This seems an unlikely time to start a winter garden in the beginning of summer and that is likely why some gardeners miss out on starting their winter garden from seeds early enough.

I start my seeds in flats and keep them away from pests to the extent possible. However the cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae), a white butterfly with black dots on the wings can be counted on to show up. It is the most serious pest of Brassicas and they are a pest until cold weather sets in. They lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars that will devour Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower seedlings.

To foil them, you can spray the plants with BT which stands for Bacillus thurengeinsis, a bacterium that will kill the caterpillars.  It works by infecting the caterpillar’s gut with toxins that causes the caterpillar to stop eating and die in a couple of days. The good thing about it is that it is not toxic to mammals, birds, fish or fowl; a good organic pest killer.

The second organic way I reduce this pest is with a butterfly net which I use to catch and crush the adults before they lay many eggs. Fortunately, only about 4 per day showed up and I usually caught most of them. Sometimes the number of these adults is very high, but this past year not many were around. This is a good technic for a retired person like me who enjoys being in the garden, but not so good for people who work all day.

We have been enjoying broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts this winter.  We have also been enjoying lettuce. I start the seeds in flats in late July/early August and set the seedling out about 8 inches apart in raised beds for fall harvesting.  The lettuce grows fast and is ready for harvesting by late October and keeps going until a hard freeze in December or January. This year I planted Merveille des Quatre Saison, a French heirloom Bibb lettuce variety that has stood the test of time

Marveille des Quatre Saisons a delightful French heirloom lettuce

and is now widely available. It forms big heads of radiant color with beautiful ruby-red edged leaves surrounded by tightly folded green hearts.

Forrellenschluss and Lolla Rosa provide contrasting colors in a salad

I also planted Seed Saver’s Exchange ( lettuces; Grandma Hadley, a butterhead, which has dark purple fringe on leaf edges; and Rouge d’Hiver, a red romaine lettuce; Bunt Forellenschluss, an Austrian butterhead lettuce with maroon speckles. The translation of Forellenschluss is ‘speckled trout back’ and it is a very attractive lettuce. In the past I have grown several red varieties which add color to your salads. Red Sails, Red Velvet and Lolla Rossa are all attractive red lettuces.

These lettuces are just a few among many to choose from that are both gorgeous to look at as well as healthy and tasty.  If you have ever thrown out store-bought lettuce away, because it got on the contaminated-with- E.coli list, you can grow your own. It doesn’t take a lot of space and lettuce can handle some shade.

Rounding out my winter garden are garlic, yellow and red onions, arugula, Tuscan kale, chard, kohlrabi, sugar peas, sweet peas, and shogun turnips. As a former New Jersey farm boy, I never cease to be amazed and joyful at gardening year around in California.

I hope you are enjoying the produce from your winter gardening too, but if not there is always next year.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:

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