Learning from the Winter Garden
Going out to harvest food in my garden this winter is more like foraging in the wild. But it has taught me more than my tidier garden did about what to grow in the cold winter greenhouse or garden.
The ideal winter garden has rows of mature cabbages, kale, Brussels sprouts--all biennials that sprout in summer, and go to seed the next spring. They are renowned for winter-hardiness. Well, I was too busy this summer to start any of those.
At the last minute, during the late-October rains, I broadcasted seed into the light straw mulch on my beds. The seeds were a mix of leftovers and outdated seed that I had a lot of, so there were all kinds of things, including kale, carrots, turnips, cilantro and mustard. Oh, and the weeds--lots of those were already there, me being so busy and all. If you want to make it sound a lot more thought-out than it was, you could call it a "meadow garden."
As you can see from the picture, it grew in thickly--way too thickly. I went out knife in hand to harvest a couple of dinners, and try to thin things out. There were surprises, starting with was there and what wasn't.
The kale wasn't. Big kale plants from last summer were thriving, but what late-sown kale seedlings have survived are still just an inch high. The carrots didn't even sprout. Clearly, they need better conditions as babies than as adults. (And in fact the seeds of biennials like carrots and kale mature in June or so and fall onto warm ground.)
The champion fall-sprouters were (cultivated) cilantro and (wild) miner's lettuce. I've never had such great germination or such lush growth. The other things that did really, really well were mustard greens, amara, mizuna, bekana, tatsoi, and turnips. Plus wild dandelions, lettuce and chicory.
I realized that all the things that did well in this meadow garden are usually considered spring greens. And they're usually hard for me to grow--they bolt too fast. They bolt so readily because they are going to make seed that same year, in the fall. The seed will fall on cold ground. I had accidentally hit on the perfect strategy for late-planted winter crops, or for an unheated greenhouse all winter--plant spring greens.
Spring crops aren't usually recommended for winter because they are less hardy when full grown. But planted late by procrastinators like me, they're young and at their most hardy when the weather stops further growth. The plants are small, but they are so thick that there is still plenty.
I'm going to sprout some peas in a container and set it out. If you are willing to eat the growing tips in salad instead of waiting for pods, a pea patch rounds out the meadow garden.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.