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It seems too out-of-season to think about winter at the end of August, but despite our revels in tomatoes, squashes, melons and other summer delights, anyone who wants a winter garden and hasn't already sown seeds or set out transplants needs to do that now or within the next few weeks.

Cool-season crops depend on these warm weeks of late summer for establishing strong root systems to carry them through months of cold and rain while they slowly push toward fruition.

If you're unsure about what to plant, you can print out two calendar guides and lists of crops by visiting sonomamastergardeners.org (click on Kitchen Garden on the menu bar).

For several crops, it's possible to make two plantings, one now and another in late September.

Leafy greens and peas, cole crops — cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, broccoli, kale, collards — and root vegetables — beets, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, radishes, onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, carrots — all thrive when planted now or in early spring. In our relatively mild winters, most can remain in the ground for many weeks if not for months.

Lettuces and greens will be ready this fall and can be planted again in a few weeks, but be patient with cauliflower, one of the best crops for the winter garden. Even though you sow seeds before the end of August or set out transplants through September, the harvest could be delayed if we have an especially cold winter.

<b>Create planting space</b>

Because broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower need a fair amount of space, about 18 to 24 inches between plants, you may need to clear out some beds or wait to set out transplants until later in September after more summer crops have finished.

Root crops may appeal to gardeners for sowing first. They don't require a great deal of space planted fairly close in rows or broadcast in beds. Beets must always be thinned, though, since seeds are really seed clusters. As you snip, rather than pull, young tops, add them to green salads.

Be sure to note the "time-to-harvest" information on seed packets or transplant tags. Short-season varieties of broccoli, for example, will mature in fall whereas long-season varieties form larger heads in response to winter chill and lengthening days after the New Year, and may not be ready for eating until nearly spring.

<b>Harvesting melons</b>

Every year about this time I'm asked, "How can I tell when my melons are ripe?" It's a broad question with more than one answer and more than one caution.

After long weeks of cultivating melons, we want to avoid harvesting them either under-ripe or over-ripe, and since melons do not ripen or develop additional sweetness after picking, timing is everything.

In my childhood, when my father had acres of melons in production, he would cut a triangle into a watermelon, draw out a chunk, and give it a yea or nay: Pick now or wait a few more days.

Home gardeners usually have just a few melons of any type ripening on the vine and want to savor them all. Here are a few hints to help you along.

As melons develop, pay attention to their color so you're able to notice varied tints as melons approach maturity.

For watermelons, look for a yellow area on the side resting on the ground. Tap soundly with your knuckle, listening for a deep resonance, "punk" as opposed to "ping."

Cantaloupes and muskmelons may also develop a yellow spot on bottom, darker in their case, most notably on Crane and honeydew types.

Some varieties, particularly those with rough, netted skin, lose their greenish tints and develop an orangish yellow color. Those with ribbed or smooth skin often show mottled hues.

For cantaloupe types, it's important to pay attention to the stem. Fruit should slip off the vine with just a little pressure where stems attach. Merely lifting the fruits is often all it takes.

Stems on Crane and honeydew types, however, must be cut. Shorten stems after cutting to prevent them from puncturing other melons, but do not pull it away or rot may set in.

Some, but not all, may shrivel or show cracks where stems attach to the fruit and some emit a distinctive melon odor.

(Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.)