In years past, with the return of the Oregon winter rains, we’d have been ready to declare another end of the gardening year. But I actually worked hard this year on expanding the “winter” garden, and in getting the garden ready to make an early start next Feb/March. So, we can be more gracious this year and say that our garden is “in transition” rather than decline.
What can one grow in a winter garden in USDA zone 8A? Well, I’ll give you a quick check-off, but I must also give you qualifiers – a lot of stuff on this list will succeed or fail depending on the care and maintenance it receives both before and during the winter season – that said, here’s what I’m growing, and expecting to do well, this winter.
Prime candidate, above all, is Brussels Sprouts. Several years ago, this was my first success for a winter crop – and it did so well that I’ve grown it every winter since. B.S. actually loves the mild, wet winters here, and even though it has reached as low as the low 20s on occasion, B.S. have never flinched – So, I actually build the winter garden on this one plant.
I’ve also got a few relatives of B.S. as well – to keep them company. A few types of cabbages, and a few types of broccoli – for one, a really long season Sprouting Broccoli (200+ days!) which has a unique growth pattern – it starts growing the summer before, and actually gets quite large – but it doesn’t flower, and as winter arrives, it just stops growing and sits there – waiting for spring, I suppose. Come March, it’ll begin putting out a bazillion bud pods, like miniature regular broccoli. I actually think a Sprouting Broccoli puts out more total buds than does regular broccoli – and it has far more taste – but no commercial grower wants to try and keep picking all those tiny bud pods, when they can just take one big one and be done with it! You’ll never see sprouting broccoli in your grocery.
The other broccoli is a “leaf” broccoli called, Spigariello – it is grown for the leaves, not the buds. This is the first year I’ve grown it, and I have no idea whether it will keep growing all winter long, but I suspect it will.
Garlic and shallots are put in the garden in September, and “winter over”. Sometimes they pop up before the worst of winter sets in, but often they don’t even show above ground before late February, when they actually do start to actively grow.
Another onion family member is providing some winter interest this year – I had probably my best Green Onion (scallion) summer ever this year, and frankly, we had so many that we didn’t use them all. Since I don’t know of a way to preserve green onions, I’ve decided just to leave them alone and see what they do. If they start to show signs of rotting in the wet and cold, then I’ll run out and pull them and put them in dry sawdust – and maybe freeze some. But I have a good feeling that those babies will just get fat and big and sit there waiting for spring too.
There are also two kinds of chard working their way into winter, and we’ll just keep pulling off the outside leaves of those and see how long they want to keep going – if it gets too cold, they’ll succumb, otherwise, they just may make it.
I’ve saved the best til last – my potential stars are all Asian greens. Several years ago, I grew Komatsuna for the first time – and it blew me away! This is a big (18″x18″) dark green plant, that grows out of a central “rosette” base, and you harvest the leaves by pulling away those on the far outside, and new ones grow out from the middle – It is really fast growing – if you cut it off an inch above its base, in about 7-10 days, it’s ready to be cut again! I’m not kidding. There is some evidence that production will be enhanced if the rows are covered with plastic to shield the plants from excess rain (which we have in spades), and if the freezes are not severe – in other words, 20 degrees F will not be good! And although I’m growing both bok choy and gai lan too this winter, I suspect they share the same adaptability characteristics with komatsuna – we’ll see.
Now, it occurs to me that I may have made winter in the northwest sound a bit like our prime gardening season – and if I have, I apologize. There is absolutely no commercial growing going on around here now – just what some call “over-wintering”, which is done with garlic and some onions – but nothing else. Only a few fools like me are serious about winter gardening – and the primary reason for this fact is the slug!
Slugs can by themselves wipe out an otherwise healthy and productive garden – do nothing about them, and you get little in return for your garden investment. They love the rain – they seem little bothered by cold or frost, and they are multiplying out there as we speak. All winter long, slugs are ravenously consuming any growing thing, garden, weeds, anything – and getting larger by the day. Baits and poisons that work well in the summer are ineffective in winter because of the rain. Basically, slugs do as they please all winter long – and any gardener who challenges them is soon brought to their knees.
So, what’s a gardener to do? Simple – get a garden duck! A garden duck is a domestic duck -preferably a female duck- that is fed and has a nesting area close to a garden. Ducks, unlike chickens, have little interest in mature plants, and they can be trained what to forage and what not to – but they absolutely love slugs! And a duck that is fed and housed (they must have a secure house at night) in a particular area will stay in that area without being fenced. A garden duck is a gardener’s best friend.
I grew up on a chicken farm and we raised pedigreed collies – my father always had a duck around – why? I have no idea. But I do know that a duck has FAR more personality than does a chicken (a chicken has none!). A duck makes an excellent yard pet – and dogs and ducks get alone together quite well. Our duck was often found sleeping with the dogs. And a female duck lays eggs -quite nice eggs- and twice the size of a chicken egg. One egg = breakfast.
I’ll be going back to nature for my garden defense this coming year – we’ll soon be getting a new dog -we’re on the lookout now- and I know that deer do not like yards with dogs. And we’ll also be getting a garden duck to keep the dog company.
A natural defense against slugs and deer – my god, if I keep this up, I’ll be organic before I know it!