The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer plots out strategy for winter garden despite late start

Texas farmer plots out strategy for winter garden despite late start

Photos of cosmos flower
Bright Lights cosmos flowers on stray stalks growing in the pathways of Marshall Hinsley's raised bed garden. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of hand digging furrow
Marshall Hinsley hand digs a furrow in the loose soil of a well-prepared raised bed. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photo of tattered Swiss chard
Tattered and forgotten, Swiss chard planted last spring rebounds in a raised garden bed after a fall rain. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Photos of cosmos flower
Photo of hand digging furrow
Photo of tattered Swiss chard

After a prolonged summer, cooler weather has arrived, and I can begin planting cool-season vegetables. We may think of gardening as a spring activity, but winter is one of the easiest growing seasons if you plant the right crops.

These crops also happen to be among the most nutritious, including carrots and dark, leafy greens such as kale and collards.

Cool-season crops are diverse and can be grown for nearly eight months — just as long as spring and summer crops. And winter gardening is low-maintenance; other than watering the beds every week or two if they dry out and covering them if there's a freeze, there's little to do.

 Cool-season crops are diverse and can be grown for nearly eight months — just as long as spring and summer crops.

I'd like to plant Swiss chard, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard greens, although guides such as the Old Farmer's Almanac recommend these be planted by the end of summer. I would have planted earlier, but as late as October, grasshoppers were still everywhere, devouring the few kale sprouts I did plant at the recommended time.

Furthermore, the soil was dry, hard and hot, which created an inhospitable environment for seed to germinate and sprouts to thrive.

I may plant them anyway. Cool-season crops survive cold snaps just fine, even a brief plunge below freezing if they're covered with a frost blanket. I will need to have plenty of frost blankets on hand if the chilly winter outlook of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pans out, with below-average temperatures predicted for the south central and southeastern United States.

But now is the optimum time for spinach, mustard greens, turnips, lettuce, radishes and carrots. These crops not only tolerate the cold, but they also taste their best when it's frigid outside.

A few years ago, I harvested spinach that I pulled up through snow; the leaves were green, crispy and delicate, just as if they were out on display on a layer of shaved ice in the grocery store produce section. I've never lacked for carrots, ready to be harvested all winter, even when I'm wearing a heavy coat and bracing against a harsh northern wind.

I'll plant in raised beds. During the summer, my raised beds are prone to drying out too fast between watering sessions, no matter how much organic matter I incorporate or how high I pile the mulch. But in the fall and winter, raised beds are ideal.

 Now is the optimum time for spinach, mustard greens, turnips, lettuce, radishes and carrots.

After a long rain saturates the ground around them, the soil within a raised bed remains moist but well drained, just right for the roots. They warm up during the day, which seems to spur the vegetables' growth.

They're also easier to cover with a frost blanket. Their 4-by-8-foot perimeter is the perfect size. Using boards and a few cement blocks, I can tuck the sides of the blanket inside the frame and cover my crops whenever there's a freeze in the weather forecast. No polar vortex has overpowered this protective measure yet.

This week, I planted spinach, Swiss chard and carrots. To prepare the beds, I removed the weeds but otherwise, I didn't have much to do. Having added soil amendments for the past several years, I didn't need to add more; they build up in the soil rather than wash away. Tilling wasn't necessary because the soil was loose, moist and spongy.

I parted the soil with my hand, making inch-deep furrows. I spaced each furrow as far apart as the seed packet for each crop specified. Then, I sowed the seed and gently covered it by hand by pushing a little of the parted dirt back into the furrow.

Each bed took only about 10 minutes to plant. I watered with a watering can, and that was it. The soil will stay moist enough this time of year that I need water only about twice a week.

In the next couple of weeks, I'll plant turnips for turnip greens, and I'll make successive plantings of carrots so that every week or two, another bed of carrots will reach maturity. I'll plant a bed of cilantro too, which grows its best in winter here in Texas.

By November, I'll finish all my planting for the cool season. At that time, the first rewards should begin to show up on my plate as baby spinach. While I've been weeding, I've come across holdouts of Swiss chard and collard greens that I planted last spring. I abandoned them when pests took over, and summer heat made them too much of a hassle to tend.

But they're now bouncing back into shape, revitalized by the rainfall, giving me a head start on these crops. Such pleasant surprises are the rewards of sustainable farming.