Thursday, December 13, 2012

Winter garden

My commitment to growing vegetables through the winter has been a little lukewarm. Our first winter here I tried to make use of a cold frame that had been left behind by the previous owners, dragging it into the vegetable garden and using it to cover one of the raised beds where I had planted some hardy greens. There were two problems with it. First, it didn't actually fit the bed, so there was lots of overhang around the bottom edge where cold air could get in, which made the whole undertaking a bit futile. And second, it weighed a frigging ton, which made it difficult to water, weed or harvest.

Our second winter I focused on root crops, like rutabagas, carrots and beets. I learned an important lesson that year: vegetables don't actually grow once the cold weather and short days hit, they just keep. So it's important to get the seeds into the ground way earlier than you think is necessary - in my case in late June or early July) so that the roots are big enough to harvest come October or so. At that point they get mulched to protect them from a hard frost and then the ground acts like a big refrigerator: when you want a carrot you just go out and get one. I didn't really clue into all that, that year, so all I ended up with were roots so small they were barely worth peeling. Except for the rutabagas, which don't get seeded until mid July anyway. They were great, that year.

Our third winter I didn't do much at all. No explanation, I just didn't. But it meant that this year I was more determined to get things right, or at least righter. I got the carrots and beets into the ground on time, and lots of them. The hard frosts we have had, plus the visiting nibbling rabbits, have done a number on the greens...

...but underneath the mulch the roots are big and tasty. A little hairy, and with a bit more bug damage, but really good for soups and stews.

The rutabagas, on the other hand, have been a bust. They developed nice big, healthy tops (at least until a band of marauding chickens got into the garden one day and demolished them) but the roots didn't bulb the way they should have. I'm guessing it was a soil deficiency of some kind, which I'll have to sort out for next year.

Cabbage is an interesting vegetable to grow. As far as I can tell there are cabbages you plant early in the spring for eating in the summer, others that you plant later in the spring for eating in the fall, others that are hardy enough to stay in the garden and harvest through the winter, and others that stay in the garden through the winter in order to have a head start in the spring. 

This year I tried planting a crop of red cabbage to harvest through the winter but my timing was entirely wrong, and they didn't grow big enough before the cold weather hit. They probably won't be in good enough shape to make spring eating, but we'll see. 

I also planted some January King cabbages that should hold their own in the garden through the winter. They got started too late, too, but unlike any of my other winter vegetables these cabbages seem to be still growing, and are developing heads - and beautiful ones at that. (There is a lovely one at the photo at the top of the post.)

The undoubted star of this year's winter garden is the Swiss Chard. I am developing quite an affection for this plant: it's hardy, good for you and apparently indestructible. Plus it looks lovely in the sun.

I decided to give growing under cover another try this year. In August Kim and I constructed a simple hoop house with PVC pipe and zip ties...

...and then in late September when the nights started getting chilly we covered it with fabric fastened to the pipes with these clever U-clips. We never did get around to covering the whole shebang with plastic, but so far the plants underneath have forgiven us and thrived. 

I planted two kinds of kale, more chard, bok choy, spinach and our standby salad green, Bambi. I have already gone on and on about how much I love this gem lettuce, and now I have even more reason. It's December, we have had plenty of cold weather, and it still looks like this.

The bok choy doesn't look as great, thanks to the visiting bunnies. We really have to see to our perimeter defences before spring.

I could get all perfectionist about this, but I think I'll just be happy I'm at least I'm in the right ballpark. Or as my dad would say, on the right side of left, and the upside of down.


Alison said...

Here we are in December, and it isn't until reading this post that it finally struck me that once again I have missed the window for planting a winter garden! lol I did get my garlic in, though.

Thanks for the close-ups of your pvc structure, though. I think our bed is too wide to manage that, but it's good to see how simple it is.

jeanives said...

that cabbage is to gorgeous to eat; it's worthy of a portrait

Hi, I'm Janet! said...


Did you ever figure out which cabbage to plant when? It would be awesome to have cabbage year round.


Miriam said...

Well I figured out January King cabbages need to be started way earlier than I did last year, because despite some promising growth they didn't properly head up, just grew taller and taller and taller...It's not that big a loss because we have been eating the new leaves in stir fries. has pretty good descriptions of their cabbage offerings, in terms of which make the best summer harvest or overwinter the best. And if you click on "Gardening Resources" they have two great planting guide/calendars, one for regular spring and summer growing, and one for fall/winter growing, that might help with timing-challenged people like me!

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