Brassicas Rule, Cannas Drool by Patty G. Leander

Cannas may be beautiful in the summer time, but they sure aren’t very pretty after a freeze. Mine bit the dust right around Christmas, when Old Man Winter showed up and decided to stick around for awhile. Of course my small bed of canna lilies dies back every year yet every year I am amazed at the contrast of the gloomy canna skeletons against the vibrant greens, purples and reds of the brassicas that shrug off the cold weather and keep on growing, proving once again that they deserve a prime spot in the winter garden.


Canna lilies would prefer to spend their winter on a tropical island (me too!) but they’ll be back this summer. Photo by Bruce Leander

Seasoned gardeners are well aware of these gems of the winter garden, but for novice gardeners and those who have been on the fence about a winter garden, I’d like to share a few easy-to-grow vegetables to consider planting next fall.


Mustards, kale and Chinese cabbages love the cold weather. Photo by Bruce Leander

I usually plant sugar snap peas twice a year, mid-September and late January. This year I planted a vining variety from Seed Savers Exchange, called ‘Amish Snap’, on September 17. I started picking on November 11 and plants were still producing in December even after several light freezes. On January 8th we experienced a freeze with temperatures that fell into the low 20s; the plants survived but the peas took a hit (Note: a more diligent gardener would have harvested the pods before the arrival of a predicted hard freeze!). The outer pods were damaged but many of the peas inside were perfectly edible, with a flavor slightly reminiscent of, well, frozen peas. Since the vines are healthy and the weather is mild, I’ll leave the vines for now to see if I’ll get a another flush of blooms and pods, but in the meantime I’ll seed another round of peas for a spring harvest.


‘Amish Snap’ peas: planting seeds in September, ready to harvest in November, freeze damage in January. Photo by Bruce Leander

Swiss chard, beets and spinach do not belong to the brassica family but they are ideal specimens for a winter garden.


Beets that were seeded in September have provided roots and lovely greens all winter long. Photo by Bruce Leander

Other stalwarts for the winter garden include onions, spinach, carrots and almost every herb you can imagine, except basil. We still have cold winter days ahead and any of these vegetable or herbs could be planted this month to bridge the gap between winter and spring.


Multiplying onions look grow so well in the winter garden, and they look great too! Photo by Bruce Leander


Brighten up your winter meals with the fresh flavor of multiplier onions, mint, dill and oregano.

Growing Beets (Beta vulgaris)

Beets are one of those vegetables that take me back to childhood.  My Aunt Sarah and Uncle Tom grew them.  At their house, no summer meal was complete without a side of cold pickled beets.  My aunt and uncle were carrying on a tradition that started more than 4000 years ago.  That’s when the people that know about these things believe beets were first cultivated and consumed in the areas around the Mediterranean sea.  These early beet lovers ate the roots and the tops.  In fact, they ate beet greens until spinach was introduced around AD 850.  The Romans used beets as a food staple.  They also used them to dye their clothes, cure their constipation and spice up their love lives (they considered beets an aphrodisiac).  Since the Romans ate them, they spread to Europe.  Most European countries developed their own recipes that embraced the beet (think borsch).  And, thanks to Napoleon, they also grew them to make sugar.  However, with all of that history, I still can’t get anyone at my house to eat them except me.

Larry and Carol Ann Sayle grow a variety of beets at Boggy Creek Farms.  Photo from their website.

Larry and Carol Ann Sayle grow a variety of beets at Boggy Creek Farms. Photo from their website.

Growing  – There are two types of beets regularly grown in the home garden; var flaviscens and var vulgaris. Flaviscens is the botanical name for chard.  Many people do not realize that chard is actually a beet that has been developed more for its stem and leaves than for its roots.  Vulgaris is what the majority of us think of when we think about beets.  Most of the beets grown in the home garden have a characteristic, deep red bulb (Bull’s Blood).  However, there are varieties available that are white (Albino), yellow (Golden) and striped (Chioggia).

Freshly germinated Bull's Blood Beets.  Notice how much they look like chard at this stage.

Freshly germinated Bull’s Blood Beets. Notice how much they look like chard at this stage.

Beets can be grown almost year round in gardens a little further north than mine.  However, they prefer cooler temperatures and grow best when the air temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees.  Since it gets so hot here I confine my beet production to the fall and early spring garden.  Around mid- September, I plant my first row of beets.  I often add another row in October, November and December (they can survive all but the worst freezes that Zone 9 can throw at them).  This succession planting will keep me in beets right up to March.  To plant, I dig a shallow furrow with my trusty Cobrahead Hand Hoe, scatter the seeds, cover and water.  Within a few days, they sprout.  In fact, so many little plants pop up that I am convinced they have about a 110% germination rate!

Chard is actually a beet that has been bred for its stems and leaves

Chard is actually a beet that has been bred for its stems and leaves

Once the true leaves form, I start thinning to about 4” apart. They will mature in 45-70 days depending on variety.  For best production, keep your beats evenly moist throughout their lifecycle.  Beets will stop growing at whatever size they are at if the soil is allowed to dry out.  Harvest your beets when they are 1 ½” to 2” in diameter.  If beets get too big they become very fibrous and are not fit to eat.

Pickled Beets – Pickled beets are a family tradition at our house.  My grandparents married in 1916 and I am sure my grandmother started making them for my “Pa” around that time.  So, at least someone in my family has been enjoying pickled beets for the past 100 years.  My grandmother taught my mother to make them and my mother has now taught me.  Here’s how we do it:


Pickled beets will keep for weeks in the refrigerator

Pickled beets will keep for weeks in the refrigerator

Remove tops from approximately 12 beets.  Leave 1” of top on the root.  This will prevent red beets from “bleeding” as much when you boil them.  Place the beets in a large pan and bring to a boil.  Boil until the beets are soft.  Their skins will wrinkle when they are ready.  Drain and run cold water over them to cool.  Take the beets in your hand and gently squeeze.  This will force the beet out of its skin.  Remove any stubborn skin with a knife.  While the skinless beets are cooling combine the following ingredients into a sauce pan and bring to a boil.

2 cups vinegar

1 cup water

¼ cup sugar

1 Heaping tablespoon of salt

6 whole cloves (optional)

Once the mixture boils, reduce heat to simmer.  Cut beets into ¼” slices and place in jars.  Pour the vinegar mixture into the jars until it just covers the beets.  Seal the jars and place in the refrigerator.