At a time of year when vegetable seedlings are just about impossible to find in traditional nurseries, Cole Canyon Farm in Aromas, California, is overflowing with them.
Tables inside the farm’s sheds and greenhouses are laden with transplant-sized vegetables and herbs in small containers, waiting for transport to locations nearby and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chard, broccoli, Asian greens and spinach can be found nestled next to fennel, arugula, chives and cilantro – a cornucopia of delicious edibles.
“Everyone wants cilantro,” said Steve Rehn, who owns the farm with his wife, Pamela Mason, as he walks among the plants.
The 9-year-old farm does a booming business in certified organic vegetable and herb starts, selling them not so much through nurseries, but at farmers’ markets.
Because of the recent resurgence in home vegetable gardening, Mason and Rehn are finding that their wares are quite in demand.
“The Old World medicinal herbs have been a huge hit,” said Mason, with customers seeking out such things as St. John’s wort, a natural antidepressant, and echinacea, said to help lessen the impact of a cold.
Mason and Rehn started their business after Mason was searching for vegetable starts to plant in the fall – and couldn’t locate any.
“And I said, aha, a niche. That’s what we should be doing,” said Mason.
At first glance, they’re an unlikely farming couple. Both come from theater backgrounds – in fact, they met during a production of “Macbeth” in San Francisco. She designed and created costumes; he built sets and did an occasional walk-on part.
They wound up in Aromas after Mason landed a job with El Teatro Campesino in nearby San Juan Bautista, and then later was the first director of the Mello Center in Watsonville. That job ended, but by then the couple had fallen in love with Aromas and wanted to stay.
It so happened that Mason had grown up on a farm in Ohio, and Rehn’s grandmother had been an avid gardener, so starting their own farm wasn’t such an odd idea. They had chickens for a while, at one time with a flock of almost 250.
But, said Mason, “The plants were what people wanted, and that’s what stuck.”
Now, two acres out of the couple’s five acres are in use, and they’re hoping to expand soon.
One of the secrets to Cole Canyon’s success is the wide range of plants that they grow and make available. Multiple varieties of vegetables and herbs are offered, not just one or two; exotic items like cardamom, ornamental oregano and soapwort are among the unusual selections on hand.
They also grow some plants that Californians consider to be weeds, but are popular edibles in other parts of the world – for instance, purslane, chickweed and corn salad (also known as mache).
“They’re frost-tolerant and full of flavor, and very popular in Europe,” said Rehn.
Mason also loves scented geraniums, and so those can be found in abundance, with aromas ranging from lemon to ginger to attar of roses.
So what’s good to plant right now? According to Mason, there are many choices for the kitchen gardener, from fava beans to sweet onions. And some items, like perennial herbs, can be planted just about any time of year.
Mason says there are really two kinds of winter vegetables – those that are planted now for a winter harvest, and the kind “you plant and forget about” until spring.
Some vegetables are even better when harvested after the first frost, since the temperature drop can bring out a unique flavor and sweetness.
Those that can be planted now for a winter harvest include Brussels sprouts, lettuces, beets, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, fava beans and snow peas.
It’s an ideal time of year to garden, in Mason’s view.
“In this climate, cold is better,” she said. “You’ll have fewer aphids.”
Lettuces especially do well in the fall, thriving with shorter days and cooler temperatures.
As for overwintering vegetables – the plant-and-forget type – garlic, onion varieties such as sweet and Walla Walla, shallots, fava beans and fennel are all good picks.
Perennial herbs do particularly well when planted now, because the winter rains will help them become established and send down strong roots, Mason said.
“Herbs like oreganos, thymes and lavenders are unlikely to succumb to winter cold,” she said.