Reflections and Winter Gardening

This summer, we’ve explored the satisfaction of simple but elegant cooking, preserving our seasonal bounty, and enjoying better quality, local-sourced food at a lesser cost. But there’s more: A life well lived is also a return to the lost art of simply creating. Before mass production, when living close to the earth was a given, people created out of necessity. Need a rug? Make one. Want food through the winter? Preserve it. But along with the work came a feeling of pride. I made this. I grew this. I canned this. And I’m happy I can share what I made with you. A good meal. A gift of canned goods.

A sense of community became essential, too. You grew that? I’ve grown this. Let’s get together to trade or barter or make a double batch. The Peasant Bon Vivant tours and workshops are helping to nurture this community by providing fellowship with friends or simply a fun day out or educational event in.

Through this blog, we hope you’ve tried new things, created what you’ve never created before, harvested new foods from your garden, bought fewer processed foods, and tried new recipes, and that you will want to meet like-minded friends. Friends who, like you, want more of a life well lived.

But let’s continue. Now that the eating-fresh season is over, how can we enjoy fresh, more nutritious flavors throughout the winter?

Winter Gardening
You may have noted my reference to the winter garden in prior blogs and social media posts, and many have inquired about this seemingly unrealistic concept. So, I thought I would explain in a little more detail this very simple but productive process and the types and varieties of plants I grow.

I have only recently discovered the potential of winter gardening and have been using these techniques over the past three years with varying degrees of success. My initial exposure and education came about through the works of Eliot Coleman, a Maine-based market gardener, and his two books Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. For those of you wishing to explore this subject in depth, I would recommend both.

To begin, cultivating and harvesting crops throughout winter has a long and established history in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, with its zenith reached during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, market gardeners throughout Paris produced the lion’s share of the fresh produce required by the city by cultivating small one- to two-acre plots.

These ingenious urban farmers used many innovative techniques to maintain the food needs of Paris. They developed and refined many winter garden techniques that allowed for the provision of fresh, seasonal, and sustainable vegetables and salad greens throughout the entire year.

Coleman’s exploration of European winter gardens, both large and small, provided the foundation for his own four-season market gardening success, which he shares through his market garden farm located near the Maine coast and in his writing and appearances at many garden and farming symposiums and conferences.

When I began my exploration of this subject, I believed, wrongly, that the success of the winter garden was based on technology that would provide the climate of summer to my winter-based plantings. The actual method, though, is based on three specific areas. The first is the use of plant varieties that are cool- and cold-weather tolerant. Second, winter gardening is more about winter harvest than winter growth with the actual growth occurring throughout late summer and fall. Third, using late-season plantings to accelerate early-spring growth for an early-spring harvest. An additional concept is planting in succession to assure the continuous availability of product throughout fall, winter, and late spring.

In the gardens at Cow Hill Cottage, I focus on plantings that will provide to me salad greens throughout late fall and winter, and late-season plantings in support of early-spring production as well. This year, I have planted beds of lettuce and salad mix that I will cut and allow to regrow for a second harvest later in the season. Also, I have planted a few Asian greens called Bok Choy and Pac (or Pak) Choi, as well as small carrots, leeks, and various herbs, including cilantro, parsley, and winter thyme. I will be savoring these throughout the winter and early spring. I have also successfully grown a few greens that the average American gardener might not recognize but are traditional within the European garden culture. These include Mache (or Corn Salad, which is the ultimate cold-weather salad green) and Dandelion, a very common so-called weed known to many of us in Pennsylvania. Many forage the wild Dandelion greens every spring in support of our traditional spring tonic meal of greens, sweet and sour dressing, boiled and browned potatoes, and fried country ham.

The cold frame is the basis of winter gardening. One can consider, also, low and high tunnels along with the root cellar storage area. Because of space limitations, my endeavors are constrained to the cold frame, where I’m still able to produce a substantial and adequate harvest.

The cold frame is a basic bottomless box constructed, in my case, from rough-cut two-by-ten hemlock lumber. In the past, I have used the same hemlock to fashion my lids or lights, but this year I have invested in new covers constructed from PVC “lumber” that can be milled. This product provides a strong, lightweight, and long-lasting component that is the key to the success of the winter garden technology.

The other two requirements of cold frame gardening are watering appropriately and venting the cold frames when needed.

Plants in cold frames need moderate watering. The moderate temperatures of late fall and early spring drive increased water consumption requiring two to three watering per week. During the colder months of November through early March, water requirements are very small or nonexistent, with a light watering needed perhaps every four weeks or so.

Cold frames need to be vented when sun and outdoor temperatures begin to overheat the interiors of the frames. One can manually prop open each lid with a short pole during the warmest portion of the day and then close the lids each evening. I have opted to invest in automatic openers for each cover that are temperature-activated and use no electricity.

This year, I also intend to produce bedding plants in the cold frames to support next spring’s plantings to include cabbage and Brussel sprouts, although tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants continue to require indoor seed-starting techniques.

Overall, winter gardening has brought a new level of activity to my gardening endeavors and a much-appreciated harvest of fresh greens and vegetables to my table during the long, dark days of winter. I also find in winter gardening the satisfying life-well-lived activity of producing fresh food throughout the winter months.

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