I’m an old farm kid, having spent my years 4 to 10 on a chicken farm in New Jersey. And although we certainly weren’t self-sufficient, I do know I got a good dose of good old American agrilife. We had a huge garden, and my mother was not one to let anything rot in the field if it could somehow be preserved. It was here that I got my grounding in the idea that autumn on the farm is in fact the most labor intensive season of the year!
This is true because harvest time not only means most crops must be picked and stored, or in some way preserved, but there is a major effort involved in getting the garden ready for its winter rest, and readiness for the spring planting – the transition from one season to another in the garden requires preparation – one does not simply turn their back on the garden in autumn lest one is willing to correct this mistake with extra effort in the spring. And in the case of my own garden, if I were to ignore autumnal garden preparation, the wetness of the soil would keep me from being able to till until maybe as late as June, thereby losing up to two months of springtime growing time.
Any gardener knows about the changing character of the seasonal garden – and any farm kid knows that this changing seasonal character also sets the tone of life on the farm. And when autumn rolls around, activity on the farm shifts into high gear.
But I have been imposing even more autumnal work on myself this year by my efforts to ready my garden for fall and winter productivity – I’ve tried some of this in the past, and most of that was more a learning experience than anything – this year I’m ready for my most extensive winter garden ever. Let me show you my plans by sharing a gallery of garden pics.
Believe it or not, this is perhaps the stalwart member of my winter garden – leeks. I have mixed success with the onion family – I think I’ve mastered green onions (show you in a minute), but with bulbing onions, I’ve struck out! So I’ve substituted leeks, which cooking wise can do a good stand-in for onions. Trick with leeks hereabouts is to start them mid-summer, get them properly placed in the garden by mid-autumn, and then just let them over-winter – come spring, they should burst into full glory. The schedule is much the same as for garlic, but I refuse to grow garlic since I can’t seem to get it to give me nice large cloves – and of course, the garden guides all tell you that the larger the cloves you plant, the larger the cloves you get back. Oh yeah! My experience says otherwise. From now on -until I learn the secret- I think I’ll just use the big cloves for cooking, and buy my garlic at the farmer’s market.
By the way, those leeks are mulched with 5 year old compost – which should not only keep most weeds out of the leek bed (very important!), but will also give them some nutrition during their winter rest. This is my No Effort compost pile – created from a bi-annual free load of chips dropped off here by a local tree trimming service. I use the chips for mulch in the yard, and leave the rest to rest – after 4 or 5 years, I dig down into the pile to discover that it has magically transformed itself into dark, rich garden compost! Amazing – and extremely useful.
Here’s another key piece of the winter garden this year – in the foreground are some Asian greens, which have marvelous resistance to low temperatures and a good tolerance to wet conditions – however, lettuce tends to ‘drown’ in our winter rains, so I’ll be trying this simple covering of clear poly to see if that makes a difference – I think its growth will slow down significantly, but I think it will continue to grow. A bold experiment.
Here’s an Asian green that I’m expecting big things from – The Japanese are especially good at crossing various strains of mustards and cabbages, of which this one -Choho Mustard- is an example. It’s a wonderful ‘cut and come again’ vegetable, which means it will simply grow back after you cut it – kinda like getting a haircut. For those of you who avoid mustards because of their pungent hot character, this one has none of that – in fact, it reminds me more of spinach than any of its parents – I really love it. And when it’s young like this, you don’t even have to cut out the stalks for cooking – they cook up just as tender as the leaf itself – a great winter green!
This one should be a real winner – it’s Tuscan Kale, but goes by many other names (Cavolo Nero, Lacinato Kale, Black Kale, and Dinosaur Kale). I don’t include kale in general among my favored veggies, but this one is different – to me it has a much richer and interesting taste than other kales I’ve eaten – and it’s another of the ‘cut and come again’ vegetables. I tried this stuff several years ago, and I started it too late, so it never grew much during the winter – but this one is well on its way and we’re expecting big -and delicious- things from it all winter long.
These are my green onions, which I mentioned previously – these are called, ‘Flagpoles’, I assume because they grow so tall – and they do! But what I like best is that they also grow very deep into the ground – next year I’ll get more of these and bury the seedlings half way up the green stalk and see if we can get even more of the white root.
Onions don’t compete well with weeds, and I’m late getting these weeds out of here – these weeds are henbit, or dead nettle, or maybe ground ivy – they all look alike to me. They’re not hard to get out, really – but they grow so fast that I’ve got to clean these beds every four or five weeks to stay ahead – this time, I’ll give them a good showering of compost for their winter sojourn – I’ve grown green onions all winter several times now, and they do beautifully in our wet, sunless winters.
And speaking of overgrown with weeds, witness here a bed of Broccoli Raab, if you can see them at all for the mass of aforementioned weeds. But there is beauty in this mess – they can withstand the competition of the weeds better than the onions can, but I’ll be giving them a bit more room to themselves soon – and they’ll do even better. Broccoli Raab won’t grow on into the winter, since it really goes to seed rather early in its life – but it’s such a delicious one just as it’s putting out little yellow flowers, that I usually make some room for it.
And this is the ‘wild’ winter garden. This is where the Rutabagas and Turnips live – they’re pretty hardy plants and don’t seem to mind the weeds as neighbors – so I don’t spend much time pulling weeds in this section; they’ll do fine without my help. And frankly, I like their attitude. I also think Rutabaga is one of the garden’s most unappreciated veggies – I love ’em.
I’ll end my post today by telling you about a couple of garden ‘techniques’ which work well for me in the winter garden – the first only works with those seedlings which don’t mind being transplanted when young – such things as lettuce, cabbages, and Asian greens. In mid-summer, I take a tiny piece of garden space and quickly and casually broadcast a small amount of seed in that space. Since it’s nice and warm, that seed soon sprouts and quickly grows into nice seedlings – here are a few Komatsuna that I threw down in August.
Then a month or so later, when I’ve got a bigger space available for some serious winter garden residents, I dig up a few of the Komatsuna seedlings and transplant them into their new home.
These are planted fairly close together, so in a month or so, I’ll thin them out by pulling selected entire plants to use in salads, and thereby giving the remaining plants plenty of room to keep growing. Komatsuna is great because it manages to resist both freezing temps (at least to 25F or so) and drenching rains too – and I appreciate it because it’s a good substitute for spinach, which doesn’t ever do well in my garden. It’s a goodie.
I’ll end by telling you a tale of beets – do you love baby beets? (I sure do!) then let me tell you about a strange and purely experimental technique I used this spring, that continues to produce nice ‘baby’ beets, even now. This technique is also good for really small gardens.
Way back in April of this year, as I was planning my garden layout, I realized that I had an overload of beet seed, some of which was more than 3 years old – well, there seemed little sense in taking a chance on the older seed, germination wise, especially since I had new seed on hand – but I sure do hate just throwing away seed, and I really wanted to see what 3+ year old beet seed would do. So I took those old beet seeds and rather thickly broadcast them over a small area of the new spring garden, thinking that maybe less than half would germinate – but I think the germination rate must have been close to 90%! I immediately thinned out some of the tiny sprouts, with a plan to let the remaining tightly crowded beet plants continue to grow, and to see if any bulbed out to baby beet size.
I must admit that those beets have grown very slowly over the summer – but every month, I’d stick my hand down through the foliage to see if any of the beets were beginning to swell – and it always was a pleasant surprise to find that, Yes, they were – I began to get a regular supply of baby beets. July, August, September – and now, just a few days ago I again pulled some 8 – 10 small beets from that initial planting, and yet here’s what it looks like today:
As you can see, these beets have a problem – as best I can tell, they have a virus or a soil borne disease that has affected the leaves – actually, they’ve not been sprayed with anything to counter the problem, and yet, they still are slowly maturing. In truth, they still could use some more thinning – and so they shall – for I’ll be leaving these in the winter garden as this bold experiment continues. What fun!
You know what? I think if I have any leftover beet seed this coming spring, I’ll try this one again!