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 The seeds were a mix of leftovers and outdated seed that I had a lot of, so there were all kinds of things, including kale, carrots, turnips, cilantro and mustard.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.
12/11/2017 04:32:24 pm
I live in a completely different area than you - in the Las Vegas valley at about 2750 feet - but have discovered the same thing. I have lettuces coming up and spinach that has just recently put on true leaves and looks great, carrots looking good, Chioggia beets that are doing very well, kale, chard, peas about 3 inches tall (that had failed miserably when planted in late winter at the beginning of this year. I'll protect from cold if I need to (and have a couple nights so far when lows threatened to be in the low 30s) but moral of my story, and yours I think: Try different approaches - even if they seem counterintuitive.
5/16/2018 10:40:07 am
Yes indeed--I learned all of my gardening from books at first, sitting in a remote cabin reading books and catalogs by candlelight. And the first thing I learned when I got outside and tried it was that great permaculture saying: ''It depends....." In my case, it took a lot of trial and error (and a lot of garden books from cool climates like Scotland) to figure out how to garden in the Alaskan rainforest. So since then I've learned to just try stuff.
10/9/2018 05:25:56 am
I always wanted to have a garden because I want to be more organic and natural when it comes to my food. Pumpkin is one of my favorite vegetables and I was dreaming of harvesting it in my own backyard. My favorite pumpkin recipe is Pumpkin Goat Cheese Fettuccine Alfredo with Crispy Fried Sage. I hope that in the near future, I can have a free time to start making a garden and learn the right way in planting vegetables. Thank you for this!
12/11/2017 09:56:36 pm
Valuable information... thanks!!
5/16/2018 10:42:42 am
Good to hear that it is helpful.
12/12/2017 12:01:32 am
Until recently, I moved a lot. The style of planting you described is rather like what I have done when gardening a plot for the first time or when encountering uncertain weather patterns. I would hesitate to use this planting strategy unless I planned to be present for a few subsequent seasons, in the event that a charming, tasty green turns out to be invasive in an area that no one will monitor and manage. My only disaster has been a Central American green that I planted in one tiny patch that I don't care for, and is now popping up hundreds of feet away. In Zone 3, after a winter that dipped into -25F several times! Plan B is to see if my chickens like it on a chop and drop basis. Plan C is relentless chop and drop and a very hot compost pile..
5/16/2018 10:49:31 am
Yes, it is really important to keep any unusual or new plant under observation for awhile. Growing them in pots is my usual strategy at first, especially if as you say, the place is a temporary residence.
12/12/2017 07:44:34 am
What an interesting concept! Here in NJ we seem to not have "real" winters anymore. Cold rains, a bit of snow and alot of hovering temps around freezing, I have just started building permanent raised beds for next year...bad knees at 70. Instead of composting old seed and waiting for spring, I will try this with row cover in the new bed. Never hurts to give it a try!
5/16/2018 10:58:36 am
I'd love to hear how the new beds go for you. You might want to try putting containers of water in there. That has worked well for me to prevent freezing in small coldframes.
12/12/2017 09:50:26 am
You rock!!! This is my new favorite garden idea site!
5/16/2018 11:00:55 am
Well thanks! I've been out with numerous family emergencies, but its great to be back and I look forward to making this site a place for gardeners to pick up new ideas.
12/13/2017 11:14:23 am
I like your approach and will try it with my own outdated seeds. Looking forward to CA seeds in spring!
5/16/2018 11:01:47 am
Let me know how it works for you!
I have cider boxes on my deck that are about 1 foot high and 18 inches wide. I have placed 4 of them on a little table, and I have seeded cilantro in all of them in September. Now I have plenty of nice cilantro to add to my meals during the winter. I never weed out dandelion in my garden. Young dandelion leaves make excellent salad on its own. Miner's lettuce and cleavers grow in abundance on my land, so I will start harvesting those starting January. I never buy greens in the winter. Everywhere my dog heavily runs, miner lettuce sprouts. Not sure how he does it.
5/16/2018 10:55:23 am
I love the idea of your dog out there growing miner's lettuce, even though I suspect it has to do with the canine foot traffic clearing the ground and reducing competion. Miner's lettuce sprouts in cooler temps than other things, so it probably has a chance to sprout after everything else has given up. But hey, clearing the ground is a part of gardening too!
4/8/2018 02:11:01 pm
Well, I gotta' say you have a nice website. Your writing has inspired me to renew the flowers around three of the many trees near our cabin here in Northwest Montana. Last year's planting involved going to Salvation Army and spending almost nine dollars on quite a few artificial flowers that I positioned around the base of the trees. This year I'm going to go for broke and spend a little more, probably around eleven or twelve dollars. Since I can't see the bases of any of the trees because of the two feet of snow here, I'll have to wait for about four or five weeks. I'll keep you posted.
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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.