Cool-Season Vegetables for Western Gardens

Bottles create a unique raised container for ruffled kale, the new "super food".
Immersed bottles create a unique raised container for fall kale, the new “super food”, and chard.

While frost strikes early in the mountain states, the rest of the West is in a state of flux.  Heat-loving summer vegetables may be past their peak with production in decline, but rather than watch this process of attrition, consider starting anew with the cool-season leaf and root crops we struggle to grow over summer.

The Best Western Cool-Season Crops

Our dry heat makes cole crops, such as kale, cabbage and broccoli, wither, and those that can withstand the onslaught become a Mecca for wooly aphids that lodge in the nooks and crannies of leaves and flowers.  Yet when they are sown in August, these seedlings thrive in the warm ground and come to maturity in mid- to late-fall when cooler temperatures limit aphids and other pests.  Even better, cole crops actually taste better after a frost!

Large pots on a sunny porch or patio can be packed with greens for easy picking.
Large pots on a sunny porch or patio can be packed with greens for easy picking.

The same is true for Swiss chard, lettuce, arugula, and other tender greens that bolt with the early summer heat and develop bitter flavors.  Sow these at summer’s end to yield salads that are lush and tasty until frost cuts them down.

Root crops are also ideal for cool-season growing. Of these crops, beets are a stellar performer because the leaves are edible as pot or salad greens before the root matures for harvest.  Other root crops include carrots, turnips, and radishes.  Enormous Asian daikon radishes are good root vegetables for opening up clay soils with their large powerful taproots. Some varieties are spicy while others can be surprisingly crisp and mild.

Preparing the Cool-Season Garden

Now is time to prepare for your own cool-season vegetable garden. The first step is to create space for these cool-season crops.  Remove any warm-season vegetables that are no longer productive, especially large, ground-covering vines that take up a lot of space.  If green beans passed their prime, let them go too.  Where these vegetables grew, the soil will require fresh fortification with quality amendments and organic fertilizer to replace what consumed by microbes and summer crops.

Root crops grow extra large in light soil, preferably sandy loam.  Unfortunately many gardeners have earth that is predominately clay, so unless you amend this ground with organic matter, root crops won’t reach their full potential.  The best tool for this is a spading fork ideal for small spaces and spot planting by cultivating deeply enough for root crops. Double digging is also a good practice. (Read double digging article here.)

A plant tower allows you to grow a wide range of greens in little space.

After removing summer plants, dig and turn the ground while also removing any plant remnants that are not decomposed. These can be deposited in your compost bin.  Then apply Black Gold Garden Compost Blend  in a layer at least 2 to 3 inches overall. It’s difficult to overdo it with compost, so be generous because the more you use now, the bigger your root crops will be at harvest time.  Turn the ground again to mix it up, then use an iron rake to break down the smallest clods and smooth the surface to make a suitable seedbed.

Growing Cool-Season Crops in Containers

Leaf crops are ideal for containers, too.  A few flower pots or more extensive troughs on the deck or patio are a great place to get started.  Don’t hesitate to begin with fresh Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil Plus Fertilizer that’s fully fortified with microbes, nutrients and plenty of organic matter.  Containers are perfect for lettuce, exotic greens and kale, the new super food.  In deeper containers, sow a variety of different radishes every week over the next month. That way you’ll  have some at peak of perfection all fall for impromptu salads and dips.

Autumn is the second growing season that is too often ignored in the back-to-school rush, but now is the time to think ahead and replant with leaf and root for healthy fresh eating out West.

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer is celebrating her 40th year in California horticulture and photojournalism as the most widely published professional in the state. She is the author of 21 books on gardening, design and the environment, is a widely published photographer, and syndicated with Tribune Content Agency. She is the weekly horticultural columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs and contributes to Desert Magazine, specializing on arid zone plants and practices for a changing climate. She works and lives in the remote high desert for firsthand observations of native species. Her latest book is The Colorful Dry Garden published by Sasquatch Books. When not writing or photographing she is out exploring the desert on her Arabian horse. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

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