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Get a head start on fall and winter vegetable gardens

Now is the time to start fall and winter crops, even though summer plants like tomatoes and peppers are still going quite strong. Having space for both can be a challenge, so start your cold weather crops in planters.
Now is the time to start fall and winter crops, even though summer plants like tomatoes and peppers are still going quite strong. Having space for both can be a challenge, so start your cold weather crops in planters. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Putting new plants in the ground may be the last thing home gardeners have in mind in the heat and humidity of August, particularly with summer crops like tomatoes and okra in full swing.

Yet if you want carrots or spinach, kale or broccoli, now is the time to start planning and planting, says Rich Woynicz, a Wake County master gardener who is teaching an Aug. 22 class at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. (No preregistration is required.)

Woynicz grew up gardening. “I’ve got a picture of myself in probably diapers and overalls with a shovel in my hands,” he says. “Back in the mid and late-60s, it was a great time because some of that knowledge of gardening and things like that still existed, with parents and grandparents.”

Even in northeastern New Jersey, living on a quarter-acre not far from New York City, Woynicz’s dad always had plants in the ground. Throughout his own adult life, Woynicz always grew as well, though he fully manifested this passion when he moved to North Carolina in 1991. He has a half-acre plot on his property near Lake Wheeler. He has led Cary’s Kirk Community Garden since 2011. Last summer, he was certified as an extension master gardener volunteer.

“The training is very intense. Here in Wake County, we are so fortunate in our master gardener program to have access to N.C. State professors and the knowledge base – that is right here,” he says. “We’ve got the experts of the world right here at our doorstep.

True, North Carolina can be a state of weather extremes – extreme heat, extreme wet and even occasional frigid days – but Woynicz knows one can garden year-round here.

If you cannot attend the Aug. 22 class, here is some of his cold-weather growing advice.

Plant indoors: Now is the time to start fall and winter crops, even though summer plants like tomatoes and peppers are still going quite strong. Having space for both can be a challenge, so start your cold weather crops in planters. “Things like cabbages, broccolis, kales – things that might do well in terms of transplant can be started now indoors,” Woynicz says. “Let them grow into plants and then plant them mid-August to September timeframe.”

If there’s space to put seeds in the ground, do so with the awareness that some of these cool-weather plants don’t handle direct summer sun very well. Perhaps wait to start from seed in September, when it starts to cool off and there is less direct sun.

Row covers: Frost season lasts from about October 31 to April 15 or so – that is, between Halloween and tax day. “For a fall and winter growing type of experience, just because you get frost doesn’t mean you stop growing,” Woynicz says. Lettuces and other winter crops can handle the cold. If it gets really cold – Woynicz notes there was a nine-degree day last January – that can certainly knock out larger things like broccoli. “Some things survive,” he says.

Row covers are the best defense. These fabric coverings, which function like tiny greenhouses, come in different weights for different purposes and seasons. They provide physical protection from frost and snow, but also warm the soil underneath, raising the temperature anything from two to three to 20 degrees versus outside the cover: with temperatures in the 20s, this can be the difference between a plant freezing and not. “Even with snow on my row covers, I’ve knocked the snow off and picked lettuce out of my garden,” Woynicz says. Granted, these are smaller leaf lettuces, but these same plants tend to explode in size in February and March after temperatures rise again.

He also notes that political signs can be used by frugal gardeners to make row covers. “This time of year is great with all the political advertising, the signs that people put in the ground,” Woynicz says. “Those metal hoops that people throw away after the November election are great for row covers. They can get a little rusty, but they’re a cheap, easy way for providing hoops for row covers.” One note: Do not take signs for this purpose until after Election Day.

Harvesting: Lettuce, kale and collards can be harvested year-round. Woynicz recommends cutting the outside leaves so the plant can continue to grow and produce. Bulbs like onions and garlic can be planted in late fall and grow all winter for a May or June harvest. The bulbs basically take care of themselves and can handle the cold, but they also take up space: they can potentially get in the way if you want to plant tomatoes or peppers in the spring.

Pests: “During the wintertime, a lot of insects tend to go dormant,” Woynicz says. “You can still have winter pests. Particularly if you’re growing cabbages and broccoli under row covers, you can have some caterpillars out there if it’s warm enough for them.” In wet or warm winters, there can still be fungi and diseases as well. Woynicz recommends handling caterpillars with Bacillus thuringiensis, but to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions before applying it.

Soil testing: “Knowing what is in your soil is really important,” says Woynicz. Soil testing is free except for between Thanksgiving and April and soil sample boxes are available at the Agronomic Services building on Reedy Creek Road or the Master Gardeners office on Carya Drive. For help translating the potentially cryptic results, Woynicz recommends reaching out to a master gardener.

Put your garden to sleep: Certainly one of the options in the fall and winter, Woynicz volunteers, is to take a few months off. “You’ve been gardening since early April or March. You’ve been going strong, you’ve suffered through the summertime,” he says. “It’s just like, ‘Maybe I’ll take a break.’ There are a lot of people who do that.” If you do decide not to garden during the cold months, he says, you can still take actions that will help your plot in the spring.

You can put your garden to sleep, as Woynicz puts it, by growing cover crops like annual rye or crimson clover. These will add nitrogen to the soil and require very little attention – just spread the seed across your beds and let it grow. Other options are turning compost into the soil and prepping your beds for the spring.

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com

Take a Class

Rich Woynicz, Wake County extension master gardener, will teach “Fall and Winter Vegetable Gardening,” from 10 a.m.-noon Aug. 22 at the JC Raulston Arboretum, 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh.

How much: $5. Free for friends of the JCRA members, Wake County extension master gardeners, NCSU students and Department of Horticultural Science faculty and staff. No advance registration required.

Info: jcra.ncsu.edu

Reading List

Here are some resources that master gardener Rich Woynicz suggests reading:

Home vegetable gardening: nando.com/veggardening

Home vegetable gardening beginner’s guide: nando.com/beginners

Planting guides for eastern, central and western North Carolina: nando.com/plantingguide

Fall vegetable gardening: nando.com/fallvegetables

Learn about Master Gardener program: nando.com/mastergardener