Our backyard looks like a civil war encampment. Or, so my mother said when she saw how we’d wrapped our garden beds for the winter. In fact, I’m pretty sure that our garden is drawing stares from folks around the neighborhood. (Not everyone appreciates our wrapped garden a la Christo and Jeanne-Claude). Everyone who walks by cranes their neck to peer between our fence pickets. Some point. Some gesture.
“What do you have under there?” I’ve been asked on more than a few occasions.
“Seeds?” one neighbor guessed.
“No,” I said, “They’re full of plants. In fact, we have way too much salad again. Would you like some?”
“You have salad? Really? In December?”
Yes. We do have salad. And plenty. Enough to nourish us through winter and supply the neighbors with a few complimentary family-size bowls of leafy green stuff. We also have carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, kale, endive, radicchio, cabbage, chard, and green onions. Planted in August and September, these crops should take us through winter. And, in February, when our world will still feel pretty frozen, we’ll be planting our spring crops, which should appear weeks before the local farmers markets open.
A lot of our family, friends, and neighbors seem surprised that we’re still gardening in the cold. But, winter gardening isn’t a new thing. Most likely, it’s been around for as long as there have been people farming and gardening. According to Eliot Coleman, in his book Four-Season Harvest, the people of Southern France have a long tradition of winter gardening and food gathering. Their climate is warmer than that found in much of North America, but most of the United States falls below their latitude, meaning that we have equal or greater amounts of sunlight in the winter months—and, as it turns out, that’s what matters. As long as you can protect your plants from the cold—especially the cold wind—you can grow and eat garden-fresh foods all year round. (Coleman and his family have successfully grown a wide variety of winter hardy crops on their Maine garden and farm for decades!)
And, that’s why my garden now looks like a civil war encampment for the vertically challenged. We’ve built tents, greenhouses, row covers, low tunnels—whatever you prefer to call them—and have sheltered our produce for the winter.
I read Coleman’s book last year, and it inspired me to start planting our garden early: We began in February. By the end of March, we were eating fresh salads out of our 3’x10’ garden bed. This year, we have a dozen beds and they are all covered and full of wonderful, cold-hardy produce. (That means no corn, tomatoes, cucumber, or watermelon—which are summer crops.)
They key to winter gardening is getting your planting timed right. Plants will store just fine in low tunnels or under row cover, but they aren’t going to grow at their peak. So, you have to know what your first frost date typically is and then calculate from there how much time your plants need to grow and be established (but not go to seed) before the cold hits. In our area, where the first frost date falls around October 31st, we were still planting some things (like radishes) up to early October.
And, so far, things are going well. We have large bunches of crunchy mixed green salad, plump ripe turnips, sweet juicy beets, tender leaves of kale, and bright orange carrots (that taste like candy), to name a few. Sure, later in this winter garden game we might have to peel wilted leaves off the outside of our cabbage, or toss the carrot tops to the compost, but the fact is, these vegetables are great in cold weather and will provide a major source of fresh winter produce, right from our backyard.
In just under a year, we’ve gone from a family that bought all of our vegetables to a family that raises almost all of our vegetables—though for variety we supplement from our full-diet, full-year CSA farmer. And, our garden should sustain us through even the coldest months when all the summer-only gardeners are looking longingly at their frozen beds.
Cook’s Notes: Eliot Coleman’s book has excellent charts to help the beginning winter gardener, including maps with approximate first frost dates and a table telling you the planting dates for your crops. Succession planting is the name of game in full-year gardening. We cleared and replanted each bed (using crop rotation) as soon as the last crop was harvested. You can find this book in my Amazon store, located here. (This is a direct buy from Amazon, not from me. I would receive royalties if I ever met their minimum for sales referrals, which so far I have not.)
A note about our full diet CSA from Moutoux Orchard: We were fortunate this year to be part of a ground breaking local foods program offered by our farmer: a full-diet, full-year CSA. Each week, we drive to his farm (about 45 minutes from our house) and collect as much milk, eggs, yogurt, fresh cheese, produce, and meat as we need for the upcoming week. There are no limits to what we take, but we only take what we need. This has allowed me to do things I might not have otherwise tried—like making cheeses. Also, Moutoux Orchard grew a huge variety of crops this year, and we could have gone without our garden; however, buying in to the farm’s produce has allowed us to selectively choose what we grew ourselves. Growing enough garlic, onions and tomatoes on our city lot would be a challenge—we use approximately 14 heads of garlic a week, 20 (or more ) onions, and I canned about 300 or so pounds of tomatoes this summer. I’m not sure I could grow that in our space! (We live on about a quarter acre and portions of our lot are mostly in shade.) I’m not sure what our farmer has planned for next year. This was his first year offering the program and he’s been pretty quiet on how his program will evolve into next year. I just hope we have it this good!