Now’s the time to prepare for a lush winter garden! Sow seeds now through October and you’ll be feasting soon. We’re in California, so year-round is the game plan. Besides harvesting year-round, you don’t need to be as diligent about watering and of course, it’s cooler!
I’ll share with you the veggies I find easiest and most useful for a winter garden, plus sowing tips, plant rotation, what to buy as seedlings and suggestions on where to get seeds. I’ve included a scattering of herbs, cover crops, pollinator-friendly plants and edible flowers to round out your veggie garden. Let’s plan a show-stopper!
My winter garden staples are super easy to grow and nutritious, though this is by no means an exhaustive list. For example, I don’t grow carrots because I use too many to grow enough (ditto for onions) and have never had much luck with germination. Some veggies, like radishes, are best sowed in place, but avoid doing so during a heat wave. I suggest covering the sowed seeds with cover cloth or other shade and watering them daily or even twice a day if it’s really hot.
Best sown directly in the ground:
Garlic, radishes and favas (some people also direct-sow beets and peas, but mine get mowed down by birds and slugs).
Best sown as transplants:
Lettuces (get cool-season varieties), kale, mustard greens (great for salads), peas (snap & snow), Swiss chard and spinach.
Of course, there are a lot more, but these are my go-to’s.
Maybe you’ve heard not to plant tomatoes in the same place every year because of diseases that can linger in the soil and because heavy feeders need to be alternated with plants that feed the soil. It’s best to rotate your crops, separating light, medium and heavy feeders and alternating them with soil-building plants.
I have a template for my veggie garden to print out and use for twice-annual plans. Then I can track where I’ve planted tomatoes, for example, and swap them into a different place each year, followed by peas and favas. A four-year crop rotation plan is ideal. Of course, I end up slipping in extras here and there, so my actual garden isn’t that perfect!
Heavy feeders: Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squashes, melons
Moderate feeders: Kale, lettuce and other greens
Light feeders: Beets, garlic, radishes
Alternate the above groups with soil builders (beans and peas) or green manure (cover crops) such as clover and purslane.
Fall is also prime time for planting perennials, so they can establish good roots over the next several months, before heat sets in again. I plant these in or near my veggies, but keep in mind these last for several years, so pick a spot where you don’t have to move them. Nurseries tend to only offer them in the spring, so you may have to search a bit.
Herbs: Marjoram, oregano, thyme
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandin x intermedia cultivars) – they bloom in June, when not much else is flowering.
Several flowering plants that can be sown by seed in the fall are edible, while also adding some color to your lush green winter garden. These include calendula, Johnny jump-ups and nasturtiums.
Fall is also the time to sow spring flowers, including wildflowers (see Larner Seeds). My favorites to sow now include:
Alyssum (good for pollinators) – a low-growing ground cover with white or lavender flowers (direct sow)
Bachelor buttons/cornflower – good for bees and cut or dried flowers. They’re also edible, though a tad bitter.
In addition to local nurseries, here are two of my favorite sources for mail-order seeds:
Territorial Seed Company: West Coast seed production, regenerative practices, great cultivation tips
Pinetree Garden: Good prices
Golden Gate Gardening: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California, 3rd edition, by Pam Peirce. This is my go-to reference for veggie gardening. So many resources are based on East Coast conditions; this author discusses the Bay Area’s microclimates. I refer to her “Planting Times for Sunnier Climates” for more detail on planting times.
Great Garden Companions, by Sally Jean Cunningham: Good all-around reference for the beginning gardener interested in regenerative gardening practices – with lots of visuals.