Winter gardening

This is my first year to attempt full-on winter gardening. I’ve planted a few greens in past years, but never a lot and never with much success.

This year I re-read my old copy of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest (since reprinted with a different title) and decided to try a more serious, larger effort.

It’s been a learning experience, and a productive one. Here are a few of the things I have learned so far:

  1. Even though it’s called winter gardening, planting needs to happen in late summer or early fall. Many of the things I planted in mid- to late fall are languishing in the limited sunlight. We have yet to enjoy any spinach or collards. The plants are just too small to harvest.
  2. You can’t plant too much broccoli, or at least I haven’t found the upper limit. The plants I managed to set out early enough have yielded us the most delicious broccoli we’ve ever eaten.
  3. Most crops should be harvested before they reach the size you are used to buying in the grocery store. Some of our broccoli started blooming because I kept waiting for it to grow a little bigger. Fortunately, the pretty yellow blossoms didn’t seem to hurt the taste much, although the texture was a little odd. Our cabbages are smaller than the ones I grew last spring, but it became obvious they wouldn’t benefit from longer in the garden. The smaller heads are as tightly compacted as last season’s whoppers, but the taste is just as good—a little sweeter, in fact.
  4. Beets are a new favorite. We seldom ate them before growing our own, but we’ve been amazed at how good an oven-baked beet can be. The tops are also good, especially sautéed with a little onion and mustard.
  5. It probably pays to over-plant root crops, or to start them in flats and transplant once they get going. Only a small fraction of the carrots and beets I planted directly in the garden came up.

I’ve been either lucky or unlucky with the weather this winter, depending on the point of view. Following Coleman’s suggestions, I was expecting to have to cover lots of my winter crops to keep them from freezing. But he lives in Maine; my garden is in North Carolina, and this year has been quite mild. The cold hardy crops I’ve got growing have not needed any cover so far. That’s lucky of course. But I have no idea how to apply the row covers to protect the plants when the weather is somewhere between Coleman’s Maine and this year’s mild temperatures.

One of the benefits of winter gardening is that there are fewer pest problems. But in this mild weather, a few cabbage worms have decided to try over-wintering. I’ve learned to check things carefully for hitchhikers before eating them, even on relatively cold days.

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