Another dreary, sunless, wet winter afternoon finds me chilled to the bone from hacking away at the snow surrounding our covered garden rows. It has finally warmed up enough that I was able to more easily remove the snowy slop that encompassed them. Up until this point everything has been so frozen solid that I have only bothered to tackle the snow from the ends of each row, thus allowing me limited access to the greens hidden within. So, back inside the warm house with a hot cup of coffee in hand I thought I might take a few minutes to post some pictures and thoughts on gardening in the snow.
During the cold season some plants are actually able to concentrate or increase their sugar content which in turn serves them as a sort of natural antifreeze, helping them to withstand frosty and freezing conditions for extended periods of time. The slower the weather cools off the better the plants are able to acclimatize in this manner. Even people can slowly adjust to cold or heat as our body's make internal adjustments to help compensate...it's really quite fascinating.
Anyway, we are always experimenting with a wide variety of plants that seem to withstand the cold to varying degrees. So far we have a had luck with an amazing amount of different types of greens that we can grow in the cold, often all the way through the frigid months.
Plants like kale, Swiss chard, parsley, boc choy, Bull's Blood beet greens, cress, collard greens, sorrel, various kale, mache, certain mustards, green onions, arugula, oregano, violets, cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, rutabaga greens, salad burnett, spearmint, spinach, chickweed, turnip, kale-rabi, winter density lettuces, chervil, and many diverse varieties of chicory/endive/radicchio make up the winter garden list.
For this winter we focused on some of the very hardiest of the bunch that always perform well for us and have the majority of our winter rows planted in turnip greens, kale, and parsley. This↓row contains parsley, a nutritional powerhouse that is so very much more than just a silly little garnish to be pushed aside before beginning one's meal. We love it so much that we have a 25' row of it that gets picked at/on most days of the year. Parsley is included in almost every meal that we make, raw or cooked.
After over a month of very cold weather that included more than a few days in the negative digits you can quite clearly see how well the parsley and red sorrel have managed these conditions. It is not so much the chilly weather that will wear on these plants but all of the other elements combined such as cold, rain, snow, and wind that tends to break them down on a cellular level much faster than the cold alone. A simple protective cover makes a world of difference.
Included in this year's winter garden is a small section of red celery that, surprisingly, seem to be holding their own so far. These plants will be encouraged to bolt to seed in the spring in order to provide us with enough seed for the next couple years. Giant red is definitely the hardiest celery we grow. The one drawback is that a capricious percentage always seem to bolt during the summer if conditions are not just right, conditions that are all too often hard to consistently achieve...but I do try and we always end up with enough good plants to make them worthwhile to grow.
This row contains a whole lot of young turnip greens and a small section of winter density lettuces, spinach, and red mustard too. Turnip greens are always the first to put out new growth for us, sometimes even in the middle of winter during brief warm spells.
I am using this makeshift cold frame to help protect and overwinter some of our Swiss chard that, like the celery, will be allowed to provide us with new seed.
As an experiment, I have a mixture of different varieties of beets that didn't make the harvest cut under this row cover just to see how readily they will resume growth in the spring...if at all, they look pretty whipped at this point.
"There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge... observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination" - Denis Diderot
Two of this year's winter rows contain nothing but kale, my favorite winter green.
We have Lacinato kale, also called Dinosaur kale because of its bumpy textured leaves.
Our very hardy Lacinato Rainbow kale is a cross between Lacinato and Red Bore kale. I hope to grow the Red Bore (hybrid) variety next year if I can find some affordable seeds...dang they're pricey.
Beedy's Camden Kale hibernating in a bed of leaves.
Red and White kale. I have noticed that the younger Russian kale plants perform much, much better than the larger ones in our winter garden, it seemingly has to do with the thickness of the stem. Many of the larger Russian kales seem to be affected by the cold and begin to rot along the trunk while those with smaller stems manage the weather much better. On the other hand, the larger plants that do survive share many more greens with us in the early spring. Quite often, even the large kales that appear to have died out in the cold are able to regrow if their roots have not been damaged. They will then provide us with a good month or more of nice greens before bolting to seed.
And, in saving the best for last, we have what I now believe is perhaps the all around hardiest variety we grow at this time, Dwarf Blue Curled Vates kale. A very nice kale, not only because it is so darn cold hardy but the shorter stature of this particular variety makes it a perfect fit for our row covers. The Red Bore kale seems to be similar in nature which is why I want to include it next season.
Believe it or not, we are able to "gently" pick all of these greens while frozen solid and if they are allowed to thaw at a temperature around 40°...not too warm, you honestly can barely tell that they did not arrive straight out of a summer garden. Of course the main difference is that there are no bugs on them this time of year and their sugar content makes them taste much sweeter.
Gardening is much more than a warm weather activity for us, we can be found on bended knee tending our plants 365 days each year. I often wonder what my neighbors must think when they see me trudging about our gardens in the snow with a bowl in my hands, perhaps they will inquire one of these days...or more likely not, as they no doubt consider us to be a little touched in the head...and maybe we are at that.:)
"The fair-weather gardener, who will do nothing except when the wind and weather and everything else are favorable, is never master of his craft."--Henry Ellacombe