Mild Weather Makes for Salad Days in Winter
Q: What are the easiest vegetables to grow in the winter here? I grew a few tomatoes and peppers in the summer, but I’m not sure what will grow in the cooler months.
A: Winter is usually a wonderful time to garden in Tallahassee. The weather is obviously cooler. It’s less humid. There are fewer bugs to eat you and your produce. As if those reasons weren’t enough, some of the vegetables that are tastiest and easiest to grow need the cool months to mature.
Salad greens are the easiest. You can find seeds or bedding plants at local nurseries. While there are more varieties to choose from if you start from seed, there’s a pretty good selection of bedding plants. Many are “cut and come again” plants, meaning the plant will sprout new leaves after you harvest the top. Or you can harvest just a few leaves from a plant every few days, ensuring a steady supply for weeks.
Lettuces include the butterhead types, such as Bibb; crisphead, such as iceberg; loose-leaf lettuces, such green or red oakleaf; and romaine varieties. Batavian lettuces form loose, whorled heads. I have had better luck with loose-leaf, butterhead and Batavian lettuces than with crisphead types or romaine, also known as cos.
Lettuces come in a variety of colors, and you can create a colorful tableau by the way you arrange the plants. Just don’t get so enchanted by your artistry that you’re hesitant to harvest your crop. If you wait too long, your plants will go to seed and “bolted” plants acquire a bitter taste.
Other salad ingredients make good companions for lettuce in the cool-season garden. Spinach is especially easy to grow, as are Asian greens such as Mizuna, bok choy and tatsoi. Beets, carrots and radishes take nutrients from deeper in the soil than lettuces and other salad greens, so they can share the planting bed.
Cole crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts take up a bit more room in the garden, but this is the time of year to grow them. Once you cut the large center head on broccoli and cauliflower, smaller heads will form along the side stalks, extending the harvest.
Kale loves cool weather, as do its country cousins: collards, mustard and turnips. With turnips, you get both leafy greens and a tasty edible root. In fact, most of those greens taste better after a little nip of frost.
Speaking of frost, most of your winter vegetables can handle a mild cold snap and frost, but be prepared to protect them from a hard freeze. That’s temperatures dropping below 30 degrees for more than an hour or so.
If you use plastic, don’t let it touch the foliage of your plants or it will create a “burn.” To keep the plastic off my salad garden, I borrowed an idea from a local nursery and built “hoop houses.” My winter garden is in raised beds that are 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, and a “hoop house” is a really easy project that takes almost no time.
Sink 18-inch Rebar stakes halfway into the ground at the corners of the bed and midway down each long side. Get a 10-foot length of PVC pipe, half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and set it over the Rebar at one corner of the bed. Bend the PVC across the planting bed and place the other end of the pipe over the Rebar on the other side. Repeat at the other corner and in the middle. Now you have your frame.
Get a roll of plastic sheeting, the kind painters use, and drape it over the frame, burying the end on one side in the soil and using rocks to hold down the other side. The rocks will allow you to remove the cover easily when the cold spell passes, folding the plastic on the other side. The standard roll of plastic, when unfolded, is long enough to cover a 4- by 8-foot bed and leave plenty of excess to cover the ends. You can fold one side over the other and secure the bottom with rocks. Use clothespins if you need to secure the overlap up higher.
The trick to hoop houses is to let them absorb heat before the sun goes down. If a hard freeze is forecast, secure your hoop house about 2 or 3 in the afternoon so it will build up heat inside. As the temperatures drop overnight, the plants inside will stay snug.
Whether you want a big colorful garden or just a few lettuce plants, get outside and enjoy the beauty and relative comfort of winter gardening in North Florida and the Panhandle.
© 2015-2016 Postscript Publishing, all rights reserved. Audrey Post is a certified Advanced Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Leon County. Email her at Questions@MsGrowItAll.com or visit her website at msgrowitall.com. Ms. Grow-It-All® is a registered trademark of Postscript Publishing.