My Favorite Crops for Fall Seed Starting in SoCal
It’s quite hard to believe we are discussing plans for the Fall and Winter garden while it is scorching hot outside, yes? I’m not going to sugar coat this, Fall seed starting starts in August for me. Truthfully, many people talk about how it is too hot to start seeds in August, but every year I begin sowing my Fall and Winter crops as early as August. In fact, I find it necessary for some crops.
Today I want to share some highlights from our Fall and Winter garden 2022, along with my plan for Fall seed starting this year. This isn’t necessarily a full rundown of everything you can grow during the Southern California cool season (I actually have a more complete list HERE), but this is more of a reminder of all the things that knocked my socks off last season. Feel free to share with me your favorite crops for Fall & Winter in the comments below!
Early-Mid August Crops to Sow
Every year that I grow broccoli and cauliflower, the better I get as a gardener. These heading brassicas can be absolute nightmares to figure out, but I can’t envision a cool season garden without them. At first I thought broccoli was my favorite of the bunch, but homegrown cauliflower has now surpassed broccoli. I just love growing all the colors of cauliflower! So, what varieties of broccoli and cauliflower grow best in Southern California? Obviously, there are many varieties out there I haven’t tried, but let me draw your attention to one broccoli variety that I have grown for several years with success—Belstar. If you could only choose one broccoli to grow, try Belstar! Not only has it consistently produced heads for me, but Belstar grows generous side shoots to provide you with extended harvests throughout the season. This year I am also trying Eastern Magic broccoli, which a friend of mine (also in Southern California) grows with great success.
Second, I plan on growing two repeat varieties of cauliflower in my garden: vitaverde and amazing white. The latter being a brilliant chartreuse green, and the former a stark white. Both types of cauliflower have grown well in my garden. Admittedly, if you’re looking for purple cauliflower, I can’t help you. Purple cauliflower has remained elusive to me. According to other local gardeners ‘graffiti’ has performed well in Southern California, but I just haven’t been able to grow nice-sized heads. Send me your purple cauliflower suggestions if you’ve cracked the code!
Finally, another “must-grow” cool season crop for your Fall seed starting list is Romanesco. This is hands-down one of the coolest vegetables I’ve ever grown. Romanesco is a cousin to cauliflower, but it isn’t necessarily a cauliflower or a broccoli. You’ll easily identify Romanesco by its famous Fibonacci appearance—geometric fractals that look like pure magic.
Stagger Your Fall Seed Starting Dates
While I plan to start my heading brassicas in August, it’s also important to not start everything all at once. There are many reasons why I stagger my start dates. First, the weather can be unpredictable and it’s possible that seedlings started too early will perish in our heat. This absolutely can happen, especially since we have had a delayed Summer start this year. Therefore, by spreading out your Fall seed starting, you can balance out your losses and increase your chances of nailing the weather patterns. Second, we just don’t need to harvest fifty heads of cauliflower all at once! To keep a steady flow of crops, it’s much more manageable to start a few in early August, a few mid August, and some in early September, etc.
In terms of 2023 Fall seed starting, I plan to start a few Amazing White, Belstar, and Puntoverde around early/mid August. For instance, my spreadsheet from last year said I started these crops August 11th and I harvested my first broccoli for Thanksgiving and my first cauliflower in December. Afterwards, I’ll do more Fall seed starting every couple weeks after that.
End of August Beets
Adding onto things you can sow a little earlier in the Fall seed starting lineup, don’t forget to sow some beet seeds! I do have a guide on how I grow beets in Southern California, but essentially they are great shoulder season crops. Last year I sowed a round of beets towards the end of August, transplanted them out into the garden early October, and had some beets to enjoy in Winter and early Spring.
Mid to Late September Crops to Sow
My friends, let me prepare you for the struggle. There will be triple-digit days when you will wonder why on earth you started seeds this early! Truthfully, the heading brassicas are really the Fall and Winter crops that need the head start—-it’s much easier and less time sensitive from here on out.
As September unfolds, it’s time to start thinking of other delicious crops that enjoy cooler weather. There are three greens that I think every Southern California gardener should grow for the cool season—rapini, joi choi, and spinach. The hardiest of these would be rapini and joi choi. Full confession, I grew rapini for the first time last season and it knocked my socks off!!!!!! Also called broccoli rabe, rapini is more related to mustard than anything and has a slight zing or spiciness to the greens. While I still think it grows best in cooler temperatures, I did have a wonderful rapini harvest in my July Garden Tour recently. But, it has since bolted and gone bitter in our Summer heat, so I’d say it can definitely push the seasonal boundaries while qualifying as an early spring, Fall, and Winter crop as well.
Joi choi is an amazing Asian green that I utilize in stir fries all the time. It’s such a wonderful grower here in Southern California and has a beautiful structure that will catch your eye in the cool season garden. Mix some joi choi in with kale or swiss chard for a variety of stir fry greens in your garden this Fall.
Last but not least, I’m trying to rejuvenate spinach’s reputation. For some reason, spinach has a bad reputation for being impossible to grow here in SoCal. Many growers opt for mild-climate alternatives for spinach (like Malabar spinach), but I cannot admit with good conscience that they taste anything alike. I’m sorry. Furthermore, I’ve found spinach to be one of the most rewarding crops to grow during Fall and Winter here in Orange County, CA. Spinach just grows very slowly at first and you have to select the right varieties for our climate. This year I’m sticking with two favorites: Nobel spinach and Viroflay spinach. Actually, I collected seed from my spinach last year, so I guess I’m growing from my own seed stash this coming Fall.
Wait on Lettuce
As you know, I keep a spreadsheet of my seed starting dates and some of the outcomes. Honestly, I’m kind of terrible at noting the outcomes but will occasionally highlight total disasters in red. For instance, my records specifically noted that planting out lettuce in mid September was too early because the box is bright red and says “all fried.”
Just so you know, many of my spreadsheet notes end up being transferred over to my Current Season Seed Schedule (which is free to subscribers and in the Garden Resources Library). In the meantime, you can check out my Favorite lettuce varieties and plan what types of lettuce you want to grow.
Don’t Forget to Grow Turnips!
As someone who relishes the Fall and Winter garden, it’s really hard to restrain myself from just regurgitating all the incredible crops you can grow during this season in California. The Fall and Winter garden is just a whole other world compared to the Summer! But, if you read below, I’ll leave a list of more comprehensive Fall and Winter gardening lists for herbs, flowers, and crops. For now, let’s continue on with some of my favorites that we shouldn’t neglect this coming season….
Which brings me to turnips! I became so utterly besotted with turnips last season that I’m planning to devote more garden space to them this Fall. They do best in cooler weather, so I’m not going to plant any turnips until probably October. Turnips make the most luscious mash that I like to serve with sausage as a full meal with a side salad. You can read all about my turnip growing adventures in My Love Affair with Turnips but I’ll say that I plan to mostly grow the ‘golden ball’ variety this time around.
October Fall Seed Starting
I’m going to wind down this blogpost by saying that October kind of marks the point where I like to have the majority of my Fall and Winter garden transplanted out in the garden. It all kind of happens gradually (if you read Planting the Winter Garden you’ll see that I planted out my first brassicas mid September), but October is really when the days are so much shorter. Additionally, the weather is cooler in October, and if things aren’t planted out they will stay small and not grow very fast. This is the month I like to sow whatever Fall and Winter crops are on my list but I haven’t gotten around to sowing yet.
Without overwhelming you too much, there are some other plants to consider planting as we head into the end of Summer and Fall months. For example, garlic and saffron both need to be planted in the coming months. Like I mentioned, you can find a more comprehensive Fall and Winter Gardening list in this guide HERE.
Admittedly, we had a very late start to Summer this year, so I’m a little wary of how the weather will pan out this coming Fall. Hopefully, the weather won’t throw off our plans for the cool season garden too much. Fingers crossed!