Dr. Curtis E. Swift

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November 29, 2012
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SWIFT: Planning and preparing a winter garden

The soil in my garden is still soft enough to work but within a couple weeks it will be frozen solid. I need to drag out my mini-rototiller and get the soil worked up for planting. I'll plant peas, lettuce, spinach, radish and maybe even broccoli and cauliflower within the next couple of weeks for a winter garden. The vegetables I have selected are very cold hardy. That doesn't mean these seeds will germinate and grow at this time of year but will survive very cold temperatures when they germinate in early spring. I could plant these vegetables in a high tunnel or under some other plastic or glass structure but I would need to provide heat this winter if I wanted them to grow and produce before spring.

You might have noticed roadways that were recently seeded and covered with straw. The new concrete section of I-70 between Fruita and Mack is a great example of this technique. Planting after Nov. 1 ensures the seed doesn't germinate until spring and provides the cold temperature required for some seeds to break dormancy. This practice also takes advantage of winter snows or rains.

This same technique is used to re-establish native plants at gravel pits and other disturbed areas and can be used to establish a very early spring vegetable garden. This means a much earlier harvest of vegetables than you would normally get from a garden planted in the spring.

This technique may not be successful for large, warm-season vegetable seeds like beans; they often rot in the ground over the winter. Warm season vegetables like tomatoes are an exception typically showing up in the spring as volunteers. The pumpkins my family used for Halloween were from volunteer plants. I've even had potatoes start from tubers I inadvertently missed when harvesting the potato patch the previous fall. Tomato plants starting as volunteers often out-produce transplants you purchase from the garden store so I always leave some of them in the garden. You could collect some of the ripe tomatoes still laying out in the garden now, remove the seeds, and plant them in your winter garden to ensure they grow where you want them to. You could also store these seeds and plant them in the spring. Since tomatoes are self-fruitful the tomatoes these volunteers produce are the same as the ones you paid good money for last year.

To remove the tomato seeds from the fruit requires a few days of fermentation. Some fermentation has most likely already been accomplished while the ripe fruit was rotting out in the garden. These rotting ripe tomatoes are what I look for when I'm going to collect seed. Dump this rotting fruit into a pail, bucket or other container, and cover the seed and pulp with a couple inches of water. Cover this with a paper towel. Place this in a warm area for a few days to allow the pulp to decompose. When a sludge develops on top of the water and the pulp has separated from the seed you are ready to strain out the seeds. You can plant the seeds immediately in your winter garden or dry them for planting at some future date. To dry these seeds, lay them out in a single layer and turn them occasionally. Allow them to dry thoroughly at room temperature. Once dried you can then pack them in a container and store them in a cool, dry, dark area for later planting.

After you have the winter garden tilled up, mark planting rows in the soil, trickle water into these shallow trenches, and plant the seed. Cover the seed with the appropriate amount of soil and sit back and wait until spring. As long as the seed goes into moist soil you should not have to water again until spring and then only if we don't receive adequate winter moisture. If you use the square-foot gardening technique, the soil will still need to be prepared and holes or shallow trenches marked for the seed. After the ground is frozen, about mid-December in this area, a layer of weed-free straw or leaves can be applied over the planted area to help keep the ground cold. If you lack these materials you can always use boughs cut from your Christmas tree after the holidays. Even without a layer of mulch, your winter garden should germinate when Mother Nature tells the seed it is time to grow. Mulching might even delay germination.

Years ago Tom Doherty, former area agronomist for Colorado State University, and I worked with growers in the Montrose area who were attempting to develop a commercial fresh-market broccoli industry. Some of the growers started their transplants in geothermal greenhouses in Ouray County. We compared these transplants with direct seeding and found the transplants produced sooner than those plants from direct seeding, but the cost of producing the transplants was too costly for this commercial venture to succeed. The growers never did attempt to establish a field from a fall planting due to the lack of winter water.

The growers also found waiting until spring to plant using transplants or seed did not give the plants sufficient time to develop quality two-pound heads before the summer heat caused the curd to discolor. Planting in the fall gives the seedlings a quicker start and allows them to develop sizable heads before heat becomes a problem.

Give it a try. You don't have to plant the whole garden this way but many of your vegetables will appreciate being planted at this time of year instead of waiting until spring.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at Curtis.Swift@alumni.colostate.edu or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com. He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 29, 2012 12:55PM Published Nov 29, 2012 12:54PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.