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Now that it’s September, the vegetable garden’s summer crops are pumping out food faster than we can eat it. We’re swamped with summer squash. Trounced by tomatoes. Conquered by corn. Corned by cucumbers. You get the idea.

And yet, in eight to 10 weeks, summer’s crops will be shutting down. We’ll be pulling out the corn stalks and adding compost to the bed where we’ll plant the garlic. We’ll clean up other beds for winter’s food garden. Don’t you just love our Northern California climate that allows us to grow our own food year round?

So what should we plant in our winter garden? For starters, mainstays will be kale, collards, and chard. They’ll stand proudly through the winter. Your root crops should already be planted, but if not, get those potatoes, beets, and carrots into their beds asap. Even if they’re undersized when you harvest your root crops in January, they’ll be delicious—maybe more delicious than if they are full-sized and plump. You can plant English peas now, but the fall crop is never like the bumper crops you get in spring. Still, home-grown peas have a place on the Thanksgiving table. Just plant an early type and plant them now. Spinach and lettuces can be planted now as cut-and-come-again crops, although they may need protection, like under a floating row cover or light bedsheet from the thrift store, when frosts descend in December.

There’s one other category of a fall and winter garden vegetable that guarantees high nutrition, wonderful flavors, and interesting shapes, colors, and textures — that’s the wide range of Asian cabbage family crops, also called crucifers because their flowers have four petals in the shape of a cross. Think of the wild mustard and radishes that flourish in our region in late winter or early spring.

Health-wise, you can’t beat these crops. A review of research published in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Diabetic Association, showed that 70 percent of studies found a link between cruciferous vegetables and protection against cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research found studies that show various components of crucifers have some ability to stop the growth of cancer cells for breast, endometrium, lung, colon, liver, and cervical cancers. Crucifers also protect against cardiovascular disease.

Bok choi is a typical winter Asian vegetable. One cooked cup gives you 62 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin A, 10 percent of B2, 22 percent of B6, 59 percent of C, 17 percent of folic acid, and 18 percent of potassium. In addition, it provides 100 milligrams of omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid. That’s powerhouse nutrition for just one cup of veggies.

As for selecting seeds of Asian crucifers, many outlets carry Asian vegetable seeds, such as the Petaluma Seed Bank at 110 Petaluma Boulevard N. in Petaluma, as do catalogs like the Territorial Seed Company and Burpee. Renee’s Garden based in Felton is also a favorite among food gardeners. Shepherd of chooses her varieties herself, looking for quality, taste, and performance, and she has an organic line (reneesgarden.com.)

Baby pak choi ‘Green Fortune’ makes little vase-shaped, sweet and crunchy heads ready for a stir-fry or as a braised side dish.

Baby napa cabbage ‘Little Jade’ forms dense heads of Chinese cabbage just 10 inches tall. Make your own kim chi with them, or saute them with garlic, ginger, and tamari.

Salad scallions ‘Parade’ thrives in a variety of soil conditions. Chop the white shafts and green top parts for salads or latkes or for the winter hot stew pot.

Vietnamese heirloom cilantro ‘Bac Lieu’ may sound Southeast Asian, but it’s essential for Mexican tacos, too. Let some mature its seeds, which are the spice we call coriander.

Heirloom garlic chives have slim flat leaves. Get out your scissors and snip bits of them on a burger, or on scrambled eggs, or just about anywhere you want a taste of mild garlic and chives combined. Their white flowers are edible and carry that light garlic flavor.

Japanese spinach ‘Oriental Giant’ is a hybrid spinach with hybrid vigor that produces leaves double to triple the size of ordinary spinach. And it grows to size quickly and produces abundant numbers of big, smooth, arrowhead-shaped leaves.

Japanese baby turnips ‘Mikado’ are much like their predecessor, ‘Tokyo Cross’ turnips. They look like small white radishes, but are milder, without the bite that radishes have. Try them sliced into stir-fries, saute them, or roast them in the oven where they’ll cook in minutes.

As well as packets of individual vegetables, Renee has put together the following packets of mixed greens.

Gourmet mesclun salad greens ‘Asian Baby Leaf’ is a mix of tender greens for salads. This mix includes Komatsuna, Mizuna, two kinds of mustards, arugula, tatsoi, and Chinese cabbage.

Cut-and-Come-Again mustards is a mix of mild and zesty leaves and smooth and frilled mustard greens. Pretty—and very nutritious.

Pan-Pacific greens is a stir-fry mix of red mustard, mizspoona (a hybrid between mizuna and tatsoi), pak choi, and Asian red kale.

Fall to winter crops need a rich, well-drained, friable soil and adequate water if rains turn scarce. Fertilize their beds with a good two inches of well-made compost, dug into the top 10 inches of soil. Smooth out any lumpy clumps. Sow separately or mix them all together and plant up a big bed that you can cover with a sheet on frosty nights and clip leaves from all through the winter. Sow by hand then rake in lightly, or mix seeds with sand and sow thinly over the bed.

Late fall and winter just might be the tastiest time of the year.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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