Adventures in Winter Gardening

The weather today was so lovely that I almost started feeling that spring had finally arrived.  I’m too much of a weather pragmatist to trust that is the case, although I’ve learned that gardening in our climate can really surprise you when it comes to what you thought was possible.

Baby red lettuce, arugula and red russian kale growing under cover in November

Baby red lettuce, arugula and red russian kale growing under cover in November

Last autumn I caught the 4-season gardening bug after reading Niki Jabbour’s great book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener.   I loved the idea of a nurturing a small winter garden to provide me a few greens all winter long, so in early September,  I started some lettuce, kale and arugula seedlings.  I initially had grand plans to build a proper insulated cold frame garden bed, but by mid October, I was well into a new program at school that required a lot of my time, and was still canning tomatoes most weekends – so it’s a miracle that the seedlings didn’t end up dying in the sunroom!  One of my tiny little garden beds had hoops already nailed to the sides of the bed, so I popped the seedlings in the ground in mid October, and covered them with a sheet of clear plastic.   I also decided to leave a few of my carrots and parsnips in the ground just to see how they’d cope with our winter weather.

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My winter windowsill garden

Our autumn was warm and sunny, and the greens thrived in the little greenhouse environment.     Before it got really cold, I decided to dig up some of the healthiest looking lettuce plants, replant them in a large pot, and move them inside to live in a sunny window.  After a few hard frosts and some snow sprinkles in December, the carrots were sweeter than ever, and my arugula had grown enough for me to harvest a few leaves now and then.  Winter gardening success!

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My hoop garden in January

And then – winter hit with a vengeance.  If we would have had a mild winter like we had in 2012, I suspect I could have harvested my own carrots until they were gone, and would have had a few more harvests of arugula.  However, the deep freeze locked the carrots into the ground, and froze the edges of the plastic sheeting down under the snow.  I had not done any heavy mulching, or insulation of the garden bed to prepare my winter garden for extended periods of -20.  Once it got really cold, I suspected my experiment was at its end.  But at least I had my windowsill garden, right?  I usually don’t buy lettuce in the winter, I was glad I had thought to bring the lettuce inside – it is such a treat to be able to add a few lettuce leaves and green onions to home-grown sprouts for a green salad in the middle of winter.

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It’s not pretty, but it’s alive!

So this weekend, when the beautiful warm sun and bright blue skies coaxed me away from my homework  to spend a bit of time outside, I decided to investigate the garden.   The few carrots I had left in the ground were now retrievable – but their texture has gotten completely mealy from the frost.  (The chickens seem to like them though.)  Parsnips are a lot more hardy, and they appeared perfectly fine.  It was almost an afterthought to take a look under the plastic sheeting to see if there was any kale or arugula that was worth salvaging – and whaddya know?  The arugula and kale made it through!  They’re still alive!  The plants are quite a bit smaller than they were back in November because a lot of the leaves did die off, but they’re definitely back in business now that it’s a little warmer.

Some folks might see this as a flop of an experiment, but I think we should allow ourselves to be inspired by our near-failures.  I love the fact that plants will still grow, even if I don’t have time to do it right, and even if I neglect them.  THEY WILL STILL GROW.   Imagine what could happen next year if I put some proper effort into it!   Excuse me as I pore over seed catalogues, dreaming of summer…

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6 thoughts on “Adventures in Winter Gardening

  1. Great post! It’s true, certain crops are so hardy, they thrive despite neglect – as i’ve well learned! 🙂 If you mulch the carrots and parsnips next year, they’ll be great through early spring.. and use that mini tunnel for some full-sized kales so that you can have daily salads, kale chips or just plenty of leaves for soups and stews. Thanks for including me in your post..

    • Thank YOU, Niki! The dumb thing was, I had a huge bag of grass clippings and another of straw that I had even set aside to mulch the carrots. Sigh… good intentions, once again. I definitely want to utilize my mini tunnels a little better next year!

  2. Great article, I wonder if we could put some seeds out now, I have a small unheated greenhouse hubby built for me a few years ago. Maybe just experiment. I too have chickens. They love everything!

    • A lot of people are starting seeds now, but they do like to stay really warm. I’d start them inside with lots of light, and then transplant the seedlings once they are proper little plants and have gotten the chance to acclimatize to the weather outside.

  3. I’ve been trying to keep things growing through the winter too, with mixed results. I think it just takes a bit more trial and error to figure out what will work. We’ll figure it out eventually! Another good book is The Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman.

    • Yes, I’ve heard that’s a great book – a lot of my friends who have been doing this a long time have used Coleman’s book as a reliable reference.

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