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5 Foolproof Food Crops to Plant Right Now

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Pescadero Red garlic seed | Photo by Linda Ly
Pescadero Red garlic seed | Photo by Linda Ly

Watch the California Matters episode about UC Santa Cruz Farm, a pioneering, organic farm that's benefiting an entire community.

It's November, and while the rest of the country is battening down the hatches on their winter gardens, Southern California is just getting started. Ignore the peppers and tomatoes that are still being sold at your local big-box nursery — these are the plants most suited for the cooler season, and you should get them in the ground now!

#1 Garlic. The best thing about growing garlic at home is you'll be able to grow something other than the white California garlic you see in the store. Did you know there are many other varieties to be had, such as mild or spicy garlic, or garlic with red or purple cloves?

Unlike some of the teeny tiny seeds you might be used to, garlic seed can even be handled by children — so they're ideal for families who garden together. Garlic "seed" is essentially individual garlic cloves, with the peels and all. If you don't have a lot of space, garlic makes an excellent container plant as well.

Because of Southern California's warm winter climate, we can only grow certain kinds of garlic successfully. Creole varieties are well suited to our weather, and they're beautiful to boot. Gourmet Garlic Gardens has a rundown of how and what to grow in our zone for harvest in late spring to early summer.

#2 Onions. Members of the onion family include bulbing onions, green onions, leeks, shallots, and chives (garlic is also part of this group, which we've covered above). Most onions require a long growing season, so if you start the seeds now, your crop will be ready for harvest in early to late summer.

But if you want (near) instant gratification, grow green onions and chives for harvest in two to three months. Unlike bulbing onions and leeks, which are picked at the end of their growing cycle, green onions and chives can be cut as needed, and new shoots will continue to grow. That means you can keep those crops going for several months as they just keep on giving.

Bulbing onions can be grown from seed or from sets, which are simply small onions that have already been started. Onion sets are available in most nurseries, and they give you a head start on the season. Though you won't have much of a choice when it comes to buying onion sets, they're likely already adapted to Southern California's climate. If you'd like to grow your own from seed, look for "short day onions" that are specifically bred for our shorter length of daylight.

#3 Salad Greens. One of the easiest crops to grow at home, salad greens grow in sweet, crisp abundance as the weather cools down. Take your pick of the thousands of varieties of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, radicchio, endive, mizuna, mâche, even dandelion (if these "weeds" don't grow in your yard), all of which do very well in our mild winter.

They also don't mind a little shade, so if you've always struggled with adequate sunlight for summertime crops, you'll be relieved to learn that most greens will grow with just four to six hours of sun a day (of course, the more sun you can provide, the faster they'll grow).

Salad greens are typically ready for harvest in about three months, but if you're anxious to get something in time for Thanksgiving, consider the next crop below...

#4 Microgreens. Also known as baby greens or sprouts, microgreens are essentially the seedlings — or immature versions — of salad greens. You can pick any salad green while it's still young for its baby leaves, which have been found to be even more nutritious than their mature selves.

Not all microgreens come from salad greens, however. Daikon (radish) sprouts make popular microgreens, as well as the baby leaves of beets, peas, and even cilantro. They're also incredibly easy to grow, requiring only shallow soil and a week or two for the first pickins'. You can sow the seeds heavily, simply raking them through the soil with your hands, and let the sprouts grow in an overcrowded "forest" of microgreens. When they become an inch or two tall, harvest them all and start anew.

#5 Peas. Even if you don't have the patience to shuck peas from their pods, this cold-hardy legume is worth growing just for its pea shoots. Pea shoots are an underused salad green (and microgreen), though they comprise nearly the entire pea plant. You can even grow peas for the foliage alone and never let them flower; the stems continue to grow new shoots as they're cut.

If you harvest the pea pods early (before the peas inside get too large), you can eat the whole pod as-is. Frozen peas and pea pods also make a refreshing snack, especially for kids.

Peas grow tall and lanky, and will need a support structure of some sort. They like to climb a pole or trellis and depending on how much space you give them to grow, they can climb up to six feet or more. But confine pea plants to a container and the vines will be a manageable two or three feet tall, needing only a wall to lean against.

Happy winter gardening!

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