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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Winter Garden

by Chiot's Run

After reading Eliot Coleman's books Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook I was enthralled with the idea of being able to harvest things form my garden throughout the winter in my cold northern climate. It is difficult to find fresh local vegetables between November and May here in my area of the country.
First Spinach Harvest

I started my first foray into winter gardening 3 years ago and successfully harvested some spinach and kale from my garden in February. The next year I was able to grow a nice crop of carrots. This year I was a bit more ambitious and planted a few rows of leeks, an entire 4x10 bed of spinach, some onions, arugula, celery, kale, and cabbages. I made mini hoop houses for a few of my raised beds and covered them with greenhouse plastic when the cold winter hit (much earlier than normal).

My Winter Garden in Late December

Since I have limited garden space, winter gardening is proving to be quite a challenge. Many of the fall/winter harvested vegetables are planted in mid-summer. I have to carefully work around my spring/summer planting dates and make sure they're harvested and the ground is ready to plant again. As I expand my garden space I'll be able to grow and more winter items since I can focus on growing early spring crops or just cover crops before fall planting in the areas I want to plant fall crops. There is a benefit though to starting small and working my way up, I'm able to learn while I grow small amounts. It's simple and easy when you're only growing a raised bed or two rather than an entire garden full of things.

My Winter Garden in Late December

Four season gardening does have a learning curve, it's great to spend a few years observing what your fall weather and looking at how the plants respond it. The great thing is that even if I lose an entire crop of broccoli, like I did this year since the cold fall weather came a month ahead of time this year, I'm not out more than a few pennies and some time. It's also great to grow a few varieties of each crop to determine which one does best in your particular winter climate. I've got 3 varieties of spinach that I'm testing this year.

My Winter Garden in Late December

My carrots and beets have both done very will this year, I could have planted the carrots a bit earlier, but they were not too small, very respectable. Besides learning the proper planting times, the biggest problems I'm having to learn to deal with are the voles. They ate almost my entire beet crop and starting moving on the carrots. I was able to get the carrots harvested before they ate too many of those though. I'll be attempting to use castor beans in the summer garden and mole plants as well to see if these help with this problem.

Harvesting Winter Carrots Winter Gardening

I'm really enjoying learning about this aspect of edible gardening. It hasn't been easy or without failure, I'm learning a lot. I've lost entire crops of brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, carrots, beets, and other things, but since I'm growing from seed it doesn't cost that much and the knowledge gained is invaluable. When you get it right, there's nothing more satisfying than harvesting a salad in mid January or 40 pounds of carrots mid-winter.

Winter Gardening

My neighbors probably think I'm crazy when they see me out working in the garden all bundled up. But I'm happy to be eating a roast with my fresh carrots on the side or enjoying a handful of freshly harvested spinach thrown into the soup pot. learning to grow a little more of what I eat each year is the reason I garden and winter gardening saves me time canning/preserving in the summer!

Have you made an attempt at winter or four season gardening? Any great tips you can share? What have you had most success with?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.


Paula said...

Yes- I made an attempt and it was half-assed. The stuff in the hoop house croaked (I was out of town, so not able to watch it). Plus, entering it is a real pain. Do you have a door on yours?

The kale and leeks that are exposed to the elements are doing just fine, though, and the collards are a real surprise. I also have some Melissa and January King cabbages out there.

This week the weather is supposed to get bad, so I'll spend part of it in the garage cleaning up the bench and getting some lettuces and more kale started (I love kale). I'll next week, or when the weather is next up for it, to get some carrots and beets into a bed, and cover it.

Today is sunny, so it's time to go move some apple trees and wired them up on the espalier.

Willo said...

Thank you! This is SO helpful as I start planning my gardening adventures and hope to reap all the Northern winter garden goodness.

Just A Gal said...

Wow! I can only hope to get to this point some day. Having fresh vegetables on the frigid Plains would be wonderful!

Frogdancer said...

Seeing the photos of the snow, I don't think I've ever been more thankful to live in a temperate climate! I don't grow many vegetables in the winter because it's a pain to have to go out to harvest when it's dark, or drizzling. Now I feel like a wimp...

denimflyz said...

I had Eliot's book also, and followed his suggestions. Yes, it is a grand adventure. And yes, you will have failures, but boy is it fun. My neighbors think I'm nuts too, but not when I have salad and some greens to eat.
Each year is different, and you just have to take the good with the bad. I have experimented with small cold frames, greenhouse plastic around large containers and cinched down with rope or bungy cords, and then bundled with blankets when it hits -35 below 0 cold or windchills. A few years ago, I had spinach go through -35 to -40 below air and windchills, and then covered it with blankets and in February, I uncovered everything, and the spinach was just as green and so sweet, it was so wonderful. I was proud.
You are doing fine, just keep swimming...

Sadge said...

Do you have a minimum/maximum thermometer? I'd be interested in knowing the lowest nighttime temps those crops have endured. How do you water them? Any problems with snow load ripping the plastic or smashing the hoops down? Any wind in your area? Since you have wood-framed beds, maybe lining the bottom with hardware cloth would deter the voles.

Julze said...

That's fantastic! Go YOU!!

Chiot's Run said...

Paula: I do not have doors, it is a pain to get in to. I'm considering using Johnny's Selected Seeds new large quick hoops which are tall enough to walk into. Seems like a cost saving alternative to getting a greenhouse.

denimflyz: You're right, it it's challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always so much fun!

Sadge: So far the night time lows are around 0 here, I don't have too much trouble with the snow weighing down the plastic, but I brush it off. We do get a lot of wind, but I weigh down the edges of the plastic with logs and that works wonder. I don't have trouble with voles in my raised beds, I have trouble with them in my mom's garden, which is an in-ground garden. I don't usually water as it seems things don't need watered in the winter with the ground frozen.

Annie said...

We don't have that problem here but I expect we'll be moving pretty far north. I'm looking forward to the cold weather challenge. We have the opposite problem here... such heat that things stop growing and there is really no passive way to cool a greenhouse when the ambient temperature is that high unless you have an actively flowing spring. Some people, a little further west, use swamp coolers but the humidity here is so high they can't even really work (you don't get very many degrees of cooling). Having read Coleman's books, it sounds like I can create conditions to grow in the winter where it is very cold more easily than I can create conditions here to grow when it's super hot.

Tiffany Jewelry said...

Do it by yourself and enjoy the fun!God knew that we all need someone to share each happy day.Best wish to you and your family!

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Great post!

I've had several big challenges so far. I'm only beginning my 2nd year in this land, and learning much about it.

My biggest drawback so far is that the sun drops way down in the sky in the winter, and the previously full sun areas become entirely shaded. So, I'm going to have to move my winter garden.

The other thing I noticed is that vegetables just stop growing at all for me right around the end of september, when temperatures start to drop. So I'm going to have to make sure to get those veg's out so that they grow, and then hopefully can hold into the winter.

I learned this year that my lacinato kale freezes out, while my White russian kale holds without any protection. I will have to protect the lacinato kale next year or just rely on the russian varieties.

I learned today through my master gardener course that amending the soil with organic matter for autumn and winter crops are futile because the organisms aren't able to break it down. I'm not totally sure what this means yet, but will be posting much more on my blog after I've pestered my instructors some more.

Kristina Strain said...

I'm enthusiastic about trying some winter growing techniques when I get out to our new house (with 1.3 acres). Until then, I grow in a cold frame made from salvaged materials. Winterbor kale is my most successful crop so far.