It’s finally August, and our gardens are producing so much! What a joy to have fresh options to choose from for our culinary adventures every night. And we’re canning and freezing too. Food preservation by canning and freezing is one method of season extension, where we can enjoy our homegrown goodness throughout the winter. Another way is to store food in a root cellar. Potatoes, carrots, beets, and other storage roots are great candidates for the “root” cellar, while garlic and onions keep well somewhere cold but a bit drier, and winter squash does well in a room that stays 50-60 degrees. Maybe you have a closet or a porch where you can stash some of these storage veggies for a while? Check out this list for Storage Requirements of Vegetables and Fruits from Mike and Nancy Bubel.
Have you ever gone out to the garden hoping to harvest a few more peppers, only to find they’ve sadly been turned to mush by the frost? Keeping an eye on the weather and covering up any plants that are doing well with row covers is another strategy to keep your harvest going a little longer into the fall. Row covers can keep your plants above freezing as long as it’s just a light frost of 28-31 degrees. Cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, squash, melons, beans and corn are all plants that would be killed by any freezing weather. Broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, radish, peas, potatoes and spinach will tolerate light to moderate frost down to 24-26 degrees, and beets, carrots and kale can be hardy down to 20. The row cover can be placed directly over the crops, but if you want them to withstand below freezing weather for an extended time you may want to use hoops to support the cover. You can cut 6 1/2 foot lengths of wire from a roll of fence bracing wire, and place them about every four feet or so. Make sure to cut your row cover long enough to securely reach the ground at either end, and weigh it down with rocks against the wind. If you use anything heavier like plastic, be sure to monitor the temperature inside. You can place a thermometer in a small white slatted box that sits on the soil in the center of the bed. Aim for 65 degrees in early fall, 60 in late fall and winter and 70 in spring. Err on the side of cooler rather than warmer but close them up in time to keep them above freezing overnight.
And the big question is, what can I still plant now, in August, and what is the latest that I can plant different crops and still get a harvest before winter sets in for real? That is a question for Persephone. Even plants that can survive colder temperatures will not grow much in the dark of winter. In general, plants tend to grow well as long as they can get at least 10 hours of sunlight a day. Once the daylength gets shorter than that, they may stay alive, but they won’t do much growing. Here in Hillsboro, WV, our last 10 hour day for the year will be November 18. So any crops we plant will need to be able to reach harvestable size before then. If we can keep them alive through December, they’ll just stay the same size. It will be kind of like storing them in the refrigerator. If they’re still tiny, we may be able to keep them alive until the days are over 10 hours again, and they will resume growing around January 22. This is also the reason it doesn’t help to start your seeds for spring transplanting any earlier than January 22nd. They may germinate just fine, but won’t take off growing until they get enough light. Johnny’s Seeds has a chart of recommended planting dates where you can count back the number of weeks from November 18 that each crop needs to mature: Planting Dates for Winter Harvest Crops. For example, if you want to harvest radishes all winter, you should plant them 5-7 weeks before your last 10 hour day, which would be during the first half of October for us. You will need to keep them from freezing but once they are full size you won’t have to harvest them right away like you do in the summer. You can pick as many as you need each day. Any radishes that are planted before October will need to be harvested when they are ready because if not they will go on to be overmature. Carrots take longer, so if you don’t get them in the ground by the end of August you’ll have to wait for them to start growing again in the spring.
Doesn’t that sound like fun, harvesting your salad from beneath the snow? Hard to imagine now when the days are in the 80s. What will you plant now for your winter garden?