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Christmas(Dinner) in July: What to Start Now for Your Winter Garden

The air conditioner is cranking, weeds are three feet high in the summer garden, and the mosquitoes are busy making their rounds on all of your exposed limbs. Fear not! We're only 66 short days from fall as of the time of this writing. So what does this mean for your garden? Is it nearly time to say goodbye? Nope. Just time for a visit to the seasonal to-do list.

First, let's go over a little refresher. In order to grow through winter, you have MANY options. You can use row cover, cold frames, cloches, hoop houses, greenhouses, hot beds, or any other idea you come up with. As far as what you can grow, choose cold-hardy plants instead of fighting nature nurturing frost tender ones. Great choices include brassicas, leafy greens like lettuce and chard, most root crops, and a few herbs. Timing is your friend, but not your warden. Don't get discouraged if you're late to the party, there are always other plants and ways of transplanting out late crops that just require a little more love.

So, July. The polar opposite of winter, you'd think. Now is a great time to start long season cold crops like brussels sprouts and cabbage. You can start them inside or direct seed them, but the most important part about starting cold crops now is water. Dry conditions lead to bolting, which is what we need to avoid in order to make it to the cold season with a harvestable crop. You can also start broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard, collards, peas, leeks, chard, beets, rutabagas, carrots, and many more! DO NOT LET THEM GO DRY.

If space is an issue in your garden, and summer crops are currently occupying all of your growing space, it's time to make hard decisions as well as special accommodations. Are the tomatoes covered in blight but you haven't had the heart to yank them? Think about having fresh food in JANUARY! Tomatoes wont do that, especially the blight covered ones. Now, if everything is already pulling its own weight, there is no need to pull out healthy crops. Instead, make an indoor growing area to start some trays of seeds to transplant out once things start finishing outside. It's important that the space have a full spectrum growing light with an adjustable height. The light should be only a few inches above the soil(and then the top of the plants.)

For transplants, fill in any summer caps with these plants. For direct sowing, it's best if you start with an open row or larger space so the tiny seedlings aren't struggling to reach light. Since we are past the summer solstice, the daylight is already on the decline and things take about 2-3 weeks extra to reach maturity. Once your plants are established, you've finished half the work for winter. Your next half is to keep these plants protected from cold, or more so, cold wind. A simple row cover will do just fine for this. Grab a roll of 9 gauge wire and some bolt cutters and make simple hoops to support the cover off of the plants enough that it won't weigh them down in rain and snow, but not so high that the wind catches it easily.

As you can see, contrary to popular belief, us winter gardeners DO get snow, freezes, and actual winter. In the foreground of the above photo are the same rows in the previous photo, but after a small Christmas morning snow and single digits. And below, you can see how we harvested food from those rows a few days later! Each of the crops in the photos (Mustard, Yellow Heart of Winter Choy, and Parsley) were direct sown in late July and early August.

I hope this motivates those of you who can't see the garden for the weeds right now, and those of you who were too tired to even begin summer gardens this year. Much love from our little Appalachian mountaintop.

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