Connecting with the Earth as Darkness Deepens
by Catherine Harper
About now, the summer garden is coming into its full splendor. This is what most people think of when you say garden — tomatoes and peppers, corn and beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, grapes and berries… all right, mentioning berries is almost cheating in the Pacific Northwest, where some kind of berry is in season for more than half the year. But that only makes up for the shortcomings of our climate regarding other staples of the classic American garden — here, the corn season is short, as are most varieties of corn suited for our growing season. Tomatoes are almost a religion in themselves, for they will not thrive without substantial assistance. Peppers and eggplants are more difficult yet, causing many people who don’t like zucchini to overplant it, just so they have something growing with enthusiasm. Melons, too, are temperamental. But still, with luck and practice these luscious foods do grow, and it’s a season of wonder for the garden.
It’s a strange thing that just as the garden begins to bear in earnest, and you can hardly see a way to eat or save all the beans and squash that you’ve grown, is when you need to begin preparing for fall and winter crops. Of course, this is a less common sort of gardening these days when gardening for most of us is a luxury rather than a matter of survival. The popular gardens emphasize the delicate fruits of summer, which are most productive, and most notably different than their pale grocery-store counterparts.
Winter gardening isn’t so much about bounty and bulk but having a few fresh things you can add to your meals throughout the cold seasons. By extension, it’s also about understanding the seasons, and connecting with the outdoors when it isn’t fun and easy. Our winters, while dark and wet, are relatively warm, and green. The world around us keeps moving and changing, whether we’re paying attention or not. And the beets and kales and onions of the winter garden are tastier than you might imagine, even as they allow you to take this piece of the season, of the outdoors, and make it a part of yourself.
Winter gardens, while less productive, are also less labor-intensive than their summer counterparts. The plants aren’t tender, and require little extra fussing. (Of course, if you want to grow plants that aren’t really that cold-hardy, or have quicker-growing plants with bigger yields, you can fuss to your heart’s content.) Unlike during our relatively dry summers, supplemental water is rarely necessary. Weeds don’t grow much, and so won’t get in your way, and most garden pests are either dead or elsewhere.
A winter garden will profit from rich soil but will actually do better without a lot of supplemental fertilizer — large amounts of available nutrients will only encourage lots of tender young growth, which is more susceptible to temperature fluctuation. Full sun is also important — not because many of the plants are usually thought of as needing “full sun” but because our winter days are so short and cloud cover so heavy that every extra bit of light will help.
Most of the plants for a winter garden are started around the beginning of August. I almost exclusively start mine in containers, and only plant them into beds after some of the summer produce has been cleared. Nurseries are increasingly carrying winter starts as well, though the selection tends to be limited.
If you want to take a first swing at winter gardening, and you’re in the mood for easy successes without a lot of effort, alliums are a good place to start. Plant onion sets (pearl-size onion bulbs) for green onions, or any old garlic that happens to be sprouting. If you’re only interested in the greens (and garlic greens, if you haven’t tried them, are a wonderful treat), little preparation is needed — dig a shallow trench a couple of inches deep, space your bulbs about two inches apart, and cover. You can do this any time, though you’ll find the maintenance easier if you wait until later August. While the weather is still hot and dry, provide water as needed. The greens are useable at any time after they emerge. Delicious, ignored by most pests and impervious to poor soil, alliums grow easily this way.
Of course, if you want to actually produce storage onions and garlic, you should give them very rich soil, hold off planting the garlic until October or so and start the onions from seed around Imbolc. If you’re going to go to that much work, you might consider starting overwintering leeks from seeds in late August, and planting them out in the fall with garlic.
In the fall and winter months, “seasonal color” beds are planted with these odd things that look like purple and white cabbages. This first impression is essentially correct — these are ornamental kales, kales being perhaps the hardiest member of a family that also includes cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard and collards. If you spend much time growing brassicas, their similarities become more and more obvious. When small, they mostly (with the partial exception of mustard) look like the same plant, though the broccoli has been bred to produce a large head of closely packed buds, and Brussels sprouts have been coaxed into producing miniature cabbages along the length of their stalks (though in fact a regular cabbage will often produce sprouts similar to Brussels sprouts after the main head has been cut). Kales, closer than other cultivated varieties to the wild type, produce ruffled leaves that don’t form a true head. And I’m almost afraid to speculate exactly what was done to induce the poor plants to turn into cauliflower.
If you’re looking for an easy start, look to the primitive vigor of the kales — there’s a reason they’re so commonly used as an ornamental; pretty or not, the things are tough. Properly speaking, these plants should be started from seed by the middle of July, so these might be good ones to buy as starts, planting them out in September. Many varieties are available, in shades of green, red and purple — I favor the variable wild garden kale mixes, but even the ornamental varieties are perfectly edible. Kales keep me in greens for soups and stir fries all winter long.
Once you’ve come to know kales, the rest of the family is not much of a stretch. Keep in mind, though, that some varieties of broccoli will produce a fall harvest, while others will overwinter and produce heads in spring. Cauliflower is similar, and Brussels sprouts need to be started early just to be ready in spring. Fall-harvested mustard and cabbage will be sweeter for growing into a cold season.
If you really don’t want to put a lot of effort into your garden, but you’d like fresh salad greens, here’s what I’d recommend: Prepare a patch of earth (to save weeding later on, clear it and then cover it with clear plastic during a few scorching summer days — the concentrated heat will kill weed seeds). Get a packet of mache (or cornsalad) seeds, sprinkle them over the ground, rake them in, and then walk away. If you’re in a hurry for your mild-flavored greens, water a bit, but if that’s too much for you, never mind. When things get damp again, they’ll sprout and grow into little rosettes of tender spoon-shaped leaves. If you cut off the leaves and leave the roots, they’ll grow more leaves. If you harvest most of the plants and let a couple go to seed, the process will start over again. With very little care, you can be kept in greens from fall through about May, when they go to seed — longer if you replant earlier in the year. This is just about the only plant that is really growing during December and January, a period through which most plants at best preserve the status quo.
Lettuce, spinach and chard are my other favorite fall and winter greens. All can be grown from seed, either as fall greens or as overwintering ones (with spinach and chard, the difference is a bit academic, but if you wish to overwinter lettuce, select a variety intended for that purpose). If you want a lot of greens through the winter, it may be worthwhile to consider giving your greens bed some kind of protection, such as a cold frame or tunnel cloche (a system of u-shaped supports holding up a piece of plastic, keeping the plants and the ground they’re in a few degrees warmer).
My favorite root vegetables are carrots and radishes, which are traditionally sown together. The radishes come up almost immediately, and can be harvested at the end of the month. The carrots, on the other hand, are in it for the long haul, and carrots are planted now to overwinter for a spring harvest. Carrots can be a very hardy crop, sometimes growing to cudgel-like proportions, but they should be planted only where there is at least eight inches of soil before you hit clay. If this does not describe your garden, and you like carrots, it might be time to consider a raised bed.
It’s a little late already to start beets, but beets are one of the few root vegetables that can be started in containers and then transplanted, so it might be worth your while to look for starts. Turnips might make it from seed now, if you get them in quick.
What could be better than fresh peas for Thanksgiving? Peas planted in late summer will — with a little bit of luck with the weather — bear through the fall. A pea inoculant can only help.
Fava beans, too, are often planted in the fall. While they won’t give you a winter harvest, they’re a good cover crop, that can be tilled into the soil come spring, or they can be left to bear their wonderful beans.