Book Recommendation: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible

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I am often asked questions regarding when to plant, how to control pests and which crops grow well in certain conditions.  While most of this knowledge can be gained from trial and error, it’s definitely helpful to have a few points of reference when you are deciding what to plant and how to care for your garden.

One of my favorite resources is The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith.

When it comes to vegetable garden books, this volume is an invaluable resource of planting information, pest control ideas and methods for increasing the quality and quantity of your garden produce. My copy is always at my side during spring planting time (so I can reference seed depth and spacing), amid the heat of summer when I am on bug control duty, come fall time when the harvest is bountiful, and during winter when I’m busy planning the next year’s crops.

I have used Smith’s wide row format to design several gardens over the last 10 years.  His use of deep soil and low tillage methods are perfect for the raised-bed planting style of many desert gardeners.  If you have questions regarding how, when and what to plant or just want a great all-in-one reference for your garden, pick up a copy of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.

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A Year in the Zone 8 Garden

I prepared this a year ago for a little mini-class I taught on gardening in my zone, which happens to be 8b.  Knowing your zone is essential in timing planting and harvesting, because it is based on your last spring frost, first fall frost and your overall winter low temperatures. Find your zone here.

I generally follow this schedule each year and it helps me to grow more in less space.  As some crops finish, others are planted in their place for a second harvest.  With our long, hot summers, we truly can get two seasons out of the garden!  Hope this helps you plan your 2016 gardening year!

A Year in the Zone 8 Garden

January: Beginning- order seeds, start onions, brassica family indoors.  Mid-month- start tomatoes, artichoke indoors.  Plan the garden-remember to rotate your crops!

February: Beginning-Buy any remaining seeds.  Plant peas, potatoes, onions spinach, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets, brassica family.  Start peppers, eggplants and herbs indoors.

March: Last frost will be sometime early or mid-month!  

Plant, Plant, Plant!

Beginning-plant tomatoes (with frost protection wall of water or wait for mid-month), artichokes, beans, corn, cucumber, eggplant (with frost protection or wait till mid month), peppers (with frost protection or wait for mid-month), spinach/lettuce, radish, squash, swiss chard, kale, herbs.

April: Beginning-plant melons, okra, radish, spinach/lettuce.  Begin harvesting salad greens.

May: Beginning-last chance to plant artichokes, okra, radish.  Ramp-up watering.  Start harvesting!

June: Enjoy the bounty of your harvest and go to war with the bugs.  Ramp-up watering.

July: Plant winter squash from seed by the 4th of July.  Can still plant-beans, cucumber, eggplant, melons, peppers, summer squash, carrots.  Beginning of the month-start brassica family indoors.  Keep those plants well-watered!

August:  This is a big month for winter planting.  Seeds will need lots of water to germinate!

Around mid-month plant-brassica family, spinach, carrots, beets, lettuce, herbs

Can replant or 2nd plant-tomatoes (or prune original plants), beans, cucumbers, squash

Also keep up on water needs!

September: Plant-radish, lettuce/spinach.  Should be able to back down on watering some.

October:  Last chance to plant-radish, lettuce/spinach (mostly for spring harvest).  Start harvesting what you planted in August.  Back down on watering.

November: First frost is mid-month.

Clean out beds when tender plants freeze.  Keep up on the bugs (too bad they don’t die when our tomatoes do!)  Plants should need substantially less water now-even those wintering over.  If the weather is dry, water once a week or every other week through winter.  

December:  Take the month off (ha!) and look at seed catalogs.  Harvest spinach, beets, carrots, brassica family (don’t let these freeze solid or they won’t be good).  

Fall Planting and Winter Gardening for Your Zone

Did you need a project for the weekend?  Is “need” really the correct verb for the previous sentence?  Either way, it’s time to get planting in the garden if you want winter and even some spring produce!  The first thing you need to know is your USDA Hardiness Zone.

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The map gives you a general idea, but it’s best to visit their site and type in your zip code to find the correct zone.  Once you know that, you’ll also know your winter low temperature range.  Mine is an 8a, so any of you with lower temperature ranges than 10-15° F either need to begin this process earlier (next year, that is) or be prepared to do more frost protection.  We will talk about methods for that in a later post.  You also need to be real about what you can and can’t keep alive given your particular gardening setup.  Even though I may be able to keep a tomato plant alive in my backyard all winter (don’t put it past me, I may try it one day) I will have more success with crops that are less frost sensitive.

Now, here is RULE 1 when it comes to “winter gardening:”  IT’S SUNLIGHT MORE THAN TEMPERATURE THAT DETERMINES SUCCESS.  So, technically, you should all go out and figure out your latitude on a map and then base when you begin your winter plantings on that number.  The further north you are, the earlier you must plant to get the growth necessary before low temperatures set in and light is at a minimum for your area.  Once you’ve reached that point in the calendar year where you feel like the days are significantly shorter than during the summer growing season, your plants will not grow significantly.  The idea is to get the growth taken care of BEFORE this happens so there is something to harvest.

Here is THE BIG SECRET about fall/winter gardening: IN MANY WAYS IT’S EASIER TO GARDEN DURING THE FALL AND WINTER.  The bugs die off (literally), you use less water and there are less weeds.  Everything is a little slower paced and more manageable.  Once I get past the motivation to get it planted, my fall garden is probably my most rewarding of them all, which brings us back to that project you wanted (?) to do this weekend.

Here are some ideas for quick-growing winter crops that most of us can still get in the ground:

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Beets.  We always have a bowl of steaming, buttered beets on our Thanksgiving table.  I absolutely LOVE the tradition of going out and pulling the last of our beets out just before the holiday.  It feels like the perfect way to remember that this has always been a day of gratitude for what we already have .  If you’re thinking your kids won’t like them, trust me when I say that beets grown in the cool weather of fall are like eating sugar.  If they (or you) still aren’t convinced, try explaining that only those people who eat their beets all gone get to have pink-colored pee the next day.  That ought to at least get them listening.  Look for varieties with a shorter “days to harvest” number or those specifically advertised for fall planting.

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Spinach.  Clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys a good spinach salad.  I’ve got some leaf miners who are already feasting on the fall garden, but they’re nothing a little B.t. can’t handle.  (For more on that, read what I had to say here.)  I’d much rather deal with a few miners than eat a pesticide-drenched salad, anyway.  With a good head-start, your spinach will be the rock star of your fall/winter/spring garden.  Spinach planted and kept alive through winter will grow gangbusters the next spring.  The root system is already developed, and it takes off as soon as the temperatures and light even begin suggesting spring.  Plus, you can continue to harvest spinach all winter long in most climates, with little to no frost protection.  Look for varieties that specifically mention “winter” and save those heat tolerant varieties for your later spring plantings.

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Carrots.  One of my children is personally offended if we do not always have carrots growing in our garden.  Even when I lived in Zone 5B with a winter low temperature range of -15 to -10 we kept carrots in the ground and harvested them all winter long.  It was muddy, but worth it.  Again, look for shorter germination to harvest times for fall plantings.

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Quick-growing crops (Herbs, radishes, lettuce).  It’s not too late to get a few more batches of cilantro out of your patch of garden, or to finally get some radishes that aren’t so spicy (the heat adds to their zip).  Choose mixes of lettuce for a quick micro-greens crop before the first frost.

Garlic.  Plant it soon and harvest it during late spring to early summer next year.  I haven’t done this yet because it’s a little too early where I live.

More on how to frost protect during the frozen months will come later on.  For now, get out there and scratch a little soil up and plant some seeds this weekend.  Your winter menu will thank you for it!