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Cool season garden

Posted 10/29/2015

Person holding lettuce from garden

Every year, the weather becomes a little cooler and the days a little shorter, giving just a hint of the coming fall. In other parts of the country, it will soon be time for looking at the changing foliage colors, putting the garden to bed, and waiting for the inevitable long, dreary winter. Once again, life in the Southwest is different. For gardeners in the Mojave, while we might not have terrific fall color displays, the change of seasons is not bad news. In fact, we who grow plants in this unique environment know that the coming of autumn means the opportunity to start new crops of cool-season vegetables. In this remarkable desert, we can create several different gardens over the course of a single year.

When I hear the word garden, I think of edible plants: vegetables. While the phrase “vegetable gardens” connotes tomatoes, cucumbers, and the like, their time has passed until next spring. Now we can start the plants we grow for their tasty leaves and storage organs like roots, tubers and bulbs. They tend to do best when they are not exposed to extremely high temperatures and intense, scorching sunlight — the circumstances you find during a southern Nevada summer. Under those conditions, leafy and bulbing plants frequently stop growing. They may burn and ultimately wither away.

The end of summer is the time to plan and create a garden full of those green leafy veggies, the ones that you know you are supposed to be eating. There are all kinds of research proving that several servings of these per day have enormous health benefits.

It is possible to live for a few months without garden fresh tomatoes and zucchini; after all, people who are forced buy their vegetables from the corner grocery store almost never have good tasting veggies. Instead, think about how delicious a fresh salad with New Zealand spinach and buttery Boston lettuce would be. There is a whole range of different, scrumptious plants that can be part of the ongoing garden experience. Now is the time to experiment with things you might not have grown or eaten before.

Among the interesting leafy vegetables are kale, red or Swiss chard, beets, and the many different kinds of lettuce. The majority of them are green, but it is easy to find varieties with a deep red component, and that makes them not only edible—but ornamental.

Kale has numerous cousins, such as mustard, which produces a highly nutritious, frilled, peppery leaf, as well as all the cabbages and collards.There is no end of recipes for cooking these greens.

Dandelion, chicory, endive and escarole might not look it, but they are actually cousins of lettuce. When they are young, all of them produce flavorsome leaves that become terribly bitter if the plant “bolts”- that is when it begins to flower. Yes, lettuce will produce a flower if the environment is right — often heat stress is the culprit. You can tell it is happening when the plant begins to look like a cone. Be careful when planting lettuce; some varieties are so heat sensitive that their seeds will not germinate if the soil is too warm. Wait until night temperatures have dropped into the 50s or 60s before putting them in. They can often be harvested six or seven weeks after planting.

Quite a few of these plants have the advantage of being relatively fast growing, but not all cool season crops will give a quick harvest. Garlic goes into the ground in fall, but it will not be ready for harvest until late spring or early summer. One clove will produce one bulb. Much as I love garlic, it is a fussy little plant. It must experience a period of chilling in the winter, with temperatures less than 45°F, and long days in the spring before it gives you a bulb. Onions can bolt if they are planted when temperatures are too chilly; wait until very early spring for this essential vegetable.

Do not forget to try the leafy herbs, too. Basil will come up and be ready for the pesto before the weather gets cold. It is an annual, but thyme and oregano are perennials that will come back year after year. Parsley is a biennial; it produces the leaves the first year and the second year is when it flowers.

With all of these leafy plants, make sure to improve the soil. They need a fair amount of nitrogen, so they do best in a planting bed with rich fill, like compost, and of course, good drainage. If the coming winter is not too harsh, or if it is possible to protect plants with row covering during chilly nights, you may be able to pick your salad right up to spring.

Email Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist, or call at 702-257-5581.

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