Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming

By Kathryn Pankowski

Yes, I know - we haven’t even had midsummer yet. But we need to talk about winter.

A few months ago, I wrote about how, in the summer, James Bay is almost always cooler than other parts of Victoria, which means that we need to plan our food growing accordingly. “Play to your strengths,” I said.

But we have another strength: in fall and winter, we are almost always warmer than the rest of Victoria. And that makes James Bay a great place for fall and winter growing. If you live in an apartment with a south-facing balcony and a glass rail, you are really in luck, with a very desirable winter gardening spot on your hands.

Even if your gardening consists mainly of annuals in pots, why not replace them in the fall with salad greens? They’ll provide some fresh crunch just when vegetables are most expensive and, on a dreary November day, are much more cheery to look at than empty pots. June is the time to plan for this, so you can get seed in hand before it disappears from the stores.

Here are three crops you can grow, even on a not-too-sunny balcony, to make your fall and winter salads - and view - more interesting:

For the traditionalist: lettuces and spinach. You can sow both of these cool-loving crops as soon as the weather starts to cool – usually around mid-August. Their seed won’t sprout if the soil is too warm (over 22C for lettuce), so you may need to wait until mid-September or start seeds in your coolest spot. Both grow well in semi-shade or autumn sun.

Lettuce comes in many shades of green, red, and mixes of the two, so there’s lots of scope for making beautiful, as well as tasty plantings. What about a checkerboard of dark red and lime green lettuce, for example? Perhaps with a border of dark green spinach? Also keep an eye out for new spinach varieties bred for small spaces – plants are narrow and upright so more can be packed in.

If you’re the kind of person who judges a book by its cover and buys wine for the label, you can amuse yourself by picking out lettuces for their strange names: what about Drunken Woman, Red Deer Tongue, Freckles, or Jester? (Who names lettuces anyway? Is there a secret society meeting in a candlelit basement in Zurich?)

For the internationalist: Tatsoi (aka Tah Tsai). This Asian green is a kale relative and equally easy to grow in cool weather. If you have 6” pots sitting around empty, grow tatsoi in them – one per pot. They make a beautiful low rosette of leaves that could give succulents stiff competition in a beauty pageant. As with kale, pick small leaves for salads and older leaves to cook in stir-frys, soups, and stews. Sow in August or September, grow in sun or part shade, and either harvest leaves selectively or cut the whole plant after 40-50 days.

For the native plant fan: Miners’ Lettuce. It’s not a true lettuce, but a native Claytonia, already evolved to thrive in a west coast winter. In the wild, it comes up with the fall rains, flowering and setting seed in the spring. It will even grow in full shade, so is perfect for those with north-facing balconies. Pick the tips of stems all winter and it will just keep growing. It’s called Miners’ Lettuce because miners in the California gold rush learned that eating it helped prevent scurvy – a side salad of Miners’ Lettuce will give you about 1/3 of your daily requirement of Vitamin C.

Want to know more about winter crops? LifeCycles presents a free workshop on Growing Winter Vegetables on Southern Vancouver Island at the Greater Victoria Public Library, Central Branch, June 13, 7-8:30 pm.

Neighbourhood Gardening News

Thanks to all who helped make the Spring Plant Swap and Sale a jolly time: the two neighbours who donated lush collections of plants to sell, one mostly irises and one mostly lilies; the four neighbours who set up their own tables or who dropped off plants to be given away; the volunteers who helped with marketing, setting up and running the swap; the Neighbourhood Garden of All Sorts for loaning their table; and (last but not least) Discovery Coffee for caffeine and snacks to keep the volunteers perky all morning.

Kathryn Pankowski is the James Bay Neighbourhood Association Neighbourhood Gardening Advocate: she can be reached at The JBNA would like to acknowledge the financial support of the City of Victoria for this initiative.

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