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Winter is a Great Time for Gardening in ‘Mediterranean’ Climate Areas!

Judith Goldsmith first promoted winter gardening in her book, “Strawberries in November: A Guide to Year-Round Gardening in the East Bay”. She got her first basics in Permaculture from an introductory intensive with Cathé Fish of the Sierra Permaculture Guild. Her food forest in the San Francisco Bay area includes three kinds of apples (one grafted), plums, peach, persimmon, pomegranate, guava, roses (for rose hips), kumquat, Meyer lemon, Makrud lime (edible leaf), and blackberries.

I hope you don’t mind me being a bit regional here. This article is not for areas that get snow or frequent frost during winter, but a good-sized (and, with climate change, growing) chunk of the world has a “Mediterranean” climate, including western Australia, western South Africa, the ring of countries around the Mediterranean Sea (Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, etc), coastal Chile, and my area, California. (Notice they all have the ocean on their west, which keeps their winters mild.) “Mediterranean” means that during a large part of the year we have no or little rain, and since this arid condition is among those that can really benefit from Permaculture practices, it might benefit many who check in here to talk about the benefits of winter gardening.

Yes, I said the benefits of winter gardening. Unlike places with cold winters, autumn is an excellent time to plant in Mediterranean climate areas. Sadly, since many people have moved to these areas from colder places, the local nurseries, until recently, would lay off staff and cut back on inventory in autumn, but the word is starting to get out, and with this article I hope to get it out even more, especially to Permaculture farmers, who have even more control over what they grow and when they grow it. (Some of this is about choices in annual crops, once your food forest is established; many perennials are also included.)

Here’s the secret: Actually, autumn (September, and the early part of October in these areas) is the start of the best gardening season in Mediterranean climate areas. Winters are better for growing many crops because winters are the time when we can garden using just the natural rainfall. Most of the leafy vegetables, which go to seed in too-hot summers, grow much better in mild winter climate areas during winter. And in autumn the ground is still warm even as the air starts to get cooler, and it’s actually also a great time for planting most trees, shrubs, ground covers, and grasses.

No, of course you can’t grow and harvest the “fruit” crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, or zucchini. (Yes, these are all the fruit of the plant, even though we call them vegetables). Yes, you do have to save those for summer. They need heat to ripen. But that is certainly not all there is to grow and cook and enjoy eating in this world.

Best planted now (September and early October) are the cool-weather lovers: the leafy vegetables and the root vegetables.

Included among the leafy vegetables to plant now are almost all the common vegetables of the Brassica (cabbage) family: broccoli and cauliflower (actually we eat the flowers of these two), Brussel sprouts, all cabbages (including bok choy), collards, kale, mustards; also lettuces, celery, chicory, Swiss chard, endives, spinach, garden cress (Lepidium sativum — not the same as watercress), chickweed, corn salad/ lamb’s lettuce/mache, lambsquarter, purslane, and miner’s lettuce/claytonia. Also the newly-popular “spicey greens”: arugula, broccoli raab, as well as radicchio (also called roquette or rocket).

Root vegetables to plant now include carrots, parsnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, beets, kohlrabi, burdock/gobo (careful — burdock can be invasive!), salsify and scorzonera/black salsify (salsify also tends to be invasive!). Two crops grown for their greens can also be grown for their roots: celery (“celeriac”) and parsley (also for the root). Three more of the cabbage family crops which can also be grown for their greens as well as their roots are: radishes, rutabagas and turnips.

Although potatoes are traditionally planted in the spring, they can also be planted in autumn in Mediterranean climate areas; the tops will be killed by any frost, but the tubers will be very tasty. (I’ve had some trouble finding a catalog source that will mail potato seed-eyes at this time. Evidently mail-order companies don’t believe that potatoes can be started now, or they just don’t have any ready to sell. You may have to replant by saving your own seed-eyes. Store-bought potatoes may be usable, although some are sprayed with hormones to keep them from sprouting.)

Carrots, another traditional spring crop, can also be grown during the winter in Mediterranean climate areas. Get them off to a good start now, while the weather is still warm, and they will get through the winter fine and be harvestable for early spring eating.

(I don’t know about the root crops of yam and sweet potato. The first two have been considered tropical crops, but with climate change, who knows? We are now getting fruiting bananas and pomegranates in the San Francisco Bay area. Ditto blueberries.)

Also plantable now are perennials such as rhubarb, artichoke, chayote, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), sorrel, salad burnet, winter savory, currants, Florence fennel, and gooseberries; “weeds” like dock, nettles, sow thistle, dandelions, and shepherd’s purse; fava (“broad”) beans (often planted to enrich the soil as a ground cover but also a great food crop), and snap peas (sugar snap/sugar/ China peas); and members of the Allium genus, including garlic and shallots (neither of which will be ready until summer but which need a long growing season), “bulbing” onions, green onions (also called bunching onions or scallions; includes Welsh onions), chives, rocambole, and leeks.

Also plantable now in mild winter areas, although not ready for harvest until spring are: asparagus, and rhubarb roots.

And, if you’ve got your food forest established, hopefully you may also be harvesting winter fruits from trees and bushes such as winter apples, persimmon, and all the citrus (orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, etc.) as well as nuts (including the winter favorite, chestnut).

An idea: Stagger your seedlings so that they don’t all mature at once. Try starting some each week.

Getting your crops in as early as possible will give them time to get established before the colder weather starts.

You can supplement these with sprouts grown indoors. Sprouts from beans such as azuki, fava, garbanzo, lima, mung, pinto, and soy; other legume seeds such as alfalfa, clover, fenugreek, and lentils; leafy vegetable seeds including beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cress, kale, lettuce, parsley, purslane, and radish; grains seeds of barley, corn, millet, oats, brown unpolished rice, rye, wheat, and buckwheat; and other seeds including caraway, dill, flax, onion, pumpkin, peanut, safflower, and sunflower all make tasty winter salad additions. (Don’t eat large quantities of sprouts from beans or legumes, however.)

Other winter-eating ideas: start an indoor window-sill garden for herbs etc, and don’t forget to harvest edible flowers for early spring salads.

And don’t forget harvesting the abundance of “wild” edible plants that pop up in parks and near sidewalks with the rains (some of them are listed above).

Some areas are getting hip. I found this article on fall planting in Texas!

I have lots of great recipes for these winter crops, but that will have to wait for another article. But I want to add a special plug for kale. Many think of it as a boring vegetable. But here’s an old story: A medical student in Germany a century or so ago asked his professor where to start a practice. The professor replied: Look in the gardens. If you see kale, move on to another town. And here’s a delicious recipe for kale, which everyone I’ve introduced it to has loved: dribble maple syrup on cooked kale. Something in each of the two flavors really complements the other.

And artichokes. Artichokes, though available all year, are at their best in the cold season, when slow growth allows their full flavors to develop. Frost-burned ones are considered to be even better. In California at least, the heart of artichoke farmland is the coastal zone: Castroville, the home of the giant artichoke. They’re also raised in Pescadero just south of Half Moon Bay. And as Tom Phipps told us wide-eyed city-farmers when we toured his artichoke farm there as part of the Steering Committee for Sustainable Agriculture’s 1986 Ecological Farming Conference, the best artichokes are those grown in the winter. That’s because they grow slowly in the winter, and put on all that tasty “meat” on their leaves. (Did you know in Italy they have festivals for their first spring crop of
winter-grown artichokes, and that they worry in the newspapers about whether there’ll be a big enough crop to go around? But elsewhere the markets have to put a special sign on their winter-grown artichokes advising customers that they’re especially good, and not to mind the frost-browning.) And although I’ve always enjoyed the taste of artichokes, I discovered recently that they are an extremely good source of vitamins and minerals, even though low in fat. So plant and eat those winter artichokes!

All for now! Happy gardening and eating!

12 Comments

  1. I find that in the heat island of my urban area, sheltered areas in full sun, at the north edge of an expanse of white pavement, are warm enough to protect short-lived solanaceous perennials.

    My pepper plants are in their second year of production, and I’m hoping to over-winter some of the tomato plants in this location.

    I could imagine starting some crops of that sort in a cloche or cold frame at this time of year so that they can get a jump-start on root development, by analogy to the way winter wheat grows in colder climates. This might be especially helpful for climates with mild summers, where a scarcity of hot days limits the yield of ripe tomatoes.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article. Saved! I moved to the South of France last year but didn’t get a garden started until this summer. I thought things would die down come autumn but wow, things are still beautiful and alive. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you so much for this! I was struggling to understand how to adapt what I was learning about permaculture to my arid Southern California desert back yard. So grateful for the insight. :)

  4. Judith, I live in Oakland,CA and at the beginning of every month I read Strawberries in November as my growing guide. I found it by chance in a local bookstore a few years ago. It’s great to see you’re still actively promoting the same information!

  5. Nice article :) We are living in South Portugal and we garden for some time now. We have yams in the garden, we planted them 2 years ago… and summer or winter they keep on growing very good :)
    Wish you all a perfect year :)

  6. Thank you Judith for your article! It was a pleasure reading it. It was fun to read also the part that Yugoslavia is a part of the mediterranean world, although it does not exist from the year 1991 :) I noticed it because I live in Slovenia, a small country, which was once part of Yugoslavia :) All the best!

  7. Anyone what’s considered one of the best permaculture books for mediterranean climates?

    Kind regards!

  8. Great article, thank you!
    Just want to mention that rucola/rocket/roka/arugula, the spicy green, is a totally different plant from radicchio, italian chicory (red, looks like a mini cabbage). Both taste delicious (in salads) in their own way, totall different though.

  9. Hi

    Im from Western Australia in the Southwest Swan region, another handy hint , plant your Autumn Garden in amongst a fruit and nut deciduous orchard in the middle row ( orchards are real easy in this climate too )

    During Autumn Winter the lack of leaves will allow sunlight through to the garden, now depending on what hemisphere you are in southern hemi put early season trees at the southern end and lare season tree at the northern face ( reverse for north )

    So early season fruit wont block out the garden , but late season fruit will offer shade to the mature plants when the harsh sun starts to come out, this will extend your in ground harvest with only rainfall by several weeks if you have your mulch right.

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