Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: It’s time to plant coles for winter harvest

Kale is one of the vegetables you can grow during the winter.
Kale is one of the vegetables you can grow during the winter. Tribune News Service

Question: I’ve had a good season of vegetable growing this summer but want to have some crops over the fall and winter as well. How can I do that?

Answer: You’ve asked just in time. Now is ripe for plantings that will bring you vegetables over the fall and winter in our mild climate.

Unless you have extreme protection (a heated and lit greenhouse) you won’t be able to grow hot weather plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant or peppers.

So those plants that have suffered in the heat are the candidates for extended season growing. But to have those plants, you need to begin planting right away, even though it feels that you already did that not so long ago.

One of the best group of plants you can try are the coles, including arugula, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, mustard and Asian greens. These are good because as the weather cools the plants store sugar in their tissues and the sugars act as an “antifreeze” to keep their leaves from freezing, making them sweet.

Another plant that will do well is lettuce, particularly those types that are specifically for cool weather. Swiss chard doesn’t mind cool weather, nor does spinach.

Plant seeds or starts (though they’re hard to find this time of year) in the warmest location you have; lots of sun, good drainage and protection from cold winds are all important for success. The south sides of buildings are often ideal.

In case we have a hard winter, be prepared to protect your overwintering plants. Use floating row covers, plastic, cloches, etc. You can mulch plants to keep them from freezing. And though this may seem like a lot of work, consider that you’ll have many fewer insect problems in the winter.

A word of warning: wait to harvest plants that have frozen until they have thawed. If cut when still frozen, they turn into mush when you thaw then.

So much of extending the harvest depends on elements over which the gardener has no control. But the reward when picking a salad in the middle of January, or putting together a green stir-fry from your own greens in the dead of winter, brings huge rewards to those dedicated gardeners who rise to the challenge.

Q: I’ve read that there’s a mild poison in potato and tomato vines, as well as rhubarb leaves. Can I compost any of these plants safely?

A: It’s safe to compost any of them. The toxic compounds are not toxic to plants and break down quickly when composted. In potatoes and tomatoes the toxin is an alkaloid called solanine, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Rhubarb leaves have high concentrations of oxalic acid, which also can cause stomach pain and discomfort in humans.

Q: A friend told me that different colors of soil mean different things. Are there any rules of thumb for what those things are?

A: Yes, indeed, soils of different colors indicate different things. Here’s a quick breakdown:

▪  Whitish colors usually show a heavier concentration of salts and lime deposits.

▪  A dark color indicates a high level of organic matter, though black soil may mean nothing more than manganese-bearing rock particles.

▪  Reddish soils usually have a high iron content.

▪  Blue, gray, or greenish subsoil suffers from periodic water-logging.

▪  Soil that shows different colors, particularly shades of rust, reveals a problem with insufficient aeration.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to