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GardenSMART :: Inspiration for the Wily Winter Gardener

Inspiration for the Wily Winter Gardener

By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

As the sun's energy lulls and the flashy fruits of midsummer wither in plummeting fall temps, humble but hearty winter crops take center stage in our frost-kissed gardens. The persnickety gardener will descend on the waning veggie patch wielding rake and machete, ready to strip the soil and put the garden to bed for the winter. It is a crime to cut short the glorious harvests of fall and winter, for even in the harshest northern climes, the wily winter gardener can reap nourishment from the sleepy vegetable patch.

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Thanks to a glut of processed shelf-stable food and the advent of modern refrigeration and shipping, we have moved away from the garden for wintertime sustenance. Abandoning our ancestral winter gardening and preserving skills has created dependence on our increasingly flimsy industrial food system. A tangled web of subsidies and international shipping has created an abundance of barren goods available year round. They are not only devoid of nutrition, but of seasonality and real cultural significance. Turning to the winter garden as our ancestors did will return our diet to the natural rhythm of the seasons.

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The market gardeners of 1800s France knew the thrill of cheating the seasons and developed techniques and tools for season extension. Consider the addition of a simple cold frame constructed from recycled glass windows to plant winter crops. Floating row cover and hoops can create inexpensive mini hoop houses to extend the season. Always remember that the fall and winter sun is not as strong and the days are shorter, so crops will grow much slower. Planting early in fall is key for winter harvest for northern growers. Greens and radishes can be sown throughout the fall and are excellent crops for winter cold frames.

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Choose a cold hardy winter spinach like Gigante De Inverno, an Italian variety praised for its incredible cold tolerance and exceptional flavor. This spinach may overwinter with very little protection in mild climates, and is sure to soldier through a harsh winter if given cover. Buttery heads of Landis Winter Lettuce can be harvested all winter long. This is one of the most cold hardy varieties and is well suited to cold frame growing.

Worried that you're too late to the game to plant this fall? Think your winter is just too harsh for gardening? Consider the undiscovered rock star of the winter gardening line up: Mache, also known as Corn Salad Dutch. This winter annual is a slow growing green that will push through that harsh winter to bring you nutty flavor and nourishment. The greens will grow uncovered down to 5 degrees F; if covered, they will survive much colder temperatures. Mache is a popular European green eaten raw in salads and savored for its buttery texture.

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If the outdoors is out of the question, consider growing in pots indoors. A sunny window in your warm house is all that you need. Trays of shoots and baby greens are quick to grow; several crops make excellent shoots. Shiraz Tall Top Beet is a quick growing variety that can be harvested in a few short weeks. Make a mix of Mizuna Lime Streaks and Mizuna Red Streaks for a spicy Asian mix that can be harvested as shoots or baby greens. Salad Burnett is a lesser known herb that can be sown thickly for microgreens or grown as a potted plant. The plants are perennial and lend a flavor reminiscent of cucumber, which feels so exotic when eaten in winter!

Winter gardening is for the creative, passionate gardener who loves a challenge and takes the time to savor the rewards. Whether you overhaul your garden into a winter vegetable paradise or construct a cold frame or bring the greenery indoors this winter, taking a step to grow your own and savor fresh flavors in the winter months will do the heart and body good!


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