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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.