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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

8. The Garden Year: Winter

We may not think of winter as a part of the gardening year, but it certainly can be. Explore the possibilities of the more cold-hardy plants, and discover just how durable some of them can be under winter’s assault. I have harvested lettuces completely unprotected in the garden up to mid-December in a relatively mild winter. Spinach and the chicories are even more cold hardy. Even if you can’t harvest these crops in the middle of your winter, you can get them well established by the onset of ground-freezing temperatures, then completely cover with a loose mulch such as leaves or straw. Remember to pull back the mulch as soon as temperatures moderate in late winter, and enjoy a bounty of greens considerably earlier than from any possible planting in the new season.

Grow-mulch

Grow Mulch

Mulch-in-place

The Next Spring

No bare soil!

Through this review of the seasons of the garden year I have emphasized the importance of covering the soil surface to protect it from the elements and nurture soil life. In no season is that more important than in winter. Winter rains can wash away garden soil and leach its nutrients. Frost heaving can disrupt the roots of any overwintering plants. Any area where you were not able to establish a cover crop should be well mulched over the winter.

Let me tell you about my favorite trick with cover cropping and mulching garden beds over winter. Let’s take my two asparagus beds as an example. Near the end of September, I cut all the asparagus fronds, sow a mix of oats and peas, and cover with litter from the poultry house. During October and November the oats and peas come on strong, shrugging off the first frosts and growing lush and thick and about knee high. But when the seriously cold, ground-freezing weather comes in, they reliably winter-kill. That is, they lie down into the most beautiful mulch-in-place you can imagine. Remember this trick, you can use it in any situation where you need a bed that’s already mulched in the rush of spring, where you can plant and move on, and not have to worry about weed control. And of course, the peas in the mix set nitrogen in the soil, which boosts the transplants off to a good start.

Protected growing: Cold frame and greenhouse

Winter also brings to mind the subject of protected growing. Remember how we said that many of the cold-hardy plants will take far more winter chill before succumbing than we ever imagined? Remember how I said I have harvested lettuces in the open garden in mid-December? Well, suppose we gave those naturally cold-resistant crops an extra margin of protection. Suppose we were able to imitate for them an unusually mild winter. That’s what protected growing is all about—putting into place a structure that can help mitigate winter’s extremes, allowing naturally cold-hardy plants to survive and thrive.

Cold-frame

Cold Frame

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

There are many versions of protected growing, one to fit every size property. Cold frames of any size can be made from scrap wood, hay bales, old window sash, etc. With attentive management, it is surprising how much fresh greenery can be coaxed from even a modestly sized cold frame.

If you have the space and the budget for it, however, I strongly suggest the addition of a real greenhouse to the homestead. First a note on nomenclature: Some people understand “greenhouse” to mean a protective growing structure which is artificially heated. That is not what I mean. I do not add any source of artificial heat to my greenhouse—I have no interest in growing tomatoes in January. I use the structure as said—to give that extra edge of protection for naturally cold-hardy plants, enabling them to survive the coldest winter temperatures in my area.

My first greenhouse was 12x20 feet, assembled from 20-ft lengths of solid, ½-inch fiberglass rods, and wood framing on the ends. I’ll never forget my first thought on stepping into that special protected space after getting the plastic on: “This is my first greenhouse!” It was a great learner greenhouse, and I grew a lot of great stuff in it through the course of four winters. But those wet, clinging snows we get where I live took their toll, and it was in pretty ragged shape by the time I felt ready to set up a more ambitious structure. This one was based on a purchased kit—20x48 feet, arches in 1-½ inch galvanized steel pipe. It has been an incredible resource ever since.

Winter gardening is a whole new set of challenges. Rather than the season opening out into greater warmth, more sun, longer days, it is “closing down” into deeper chill and a lot of darkness. So a lot of things you’ve learned about scheduling planting, starting transplants, etc. have to be re-learned. You have to get an early enough start on your winter greenhouse crops. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a lot of plants that easily survive winter’s chill, but do so in an essentially dormant state. That is, they sit and sulk, waiting for sunnier times. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, if you do get your timing right, you will produce a mature plant ready for harvest, which will then go dormant—i.e., will await your pleasure, pristine and pretty—its “window of opportunity” for harvest expanded from the few days of a June lettuce to two or three months! And believe me, there is no surer cure for the “winter blahs” than to go out in the greenhouse. The temperature outside may be 20 degrees, but as long as the sun is shining, inside it’s Miami!