Table of Contents
1: Soil Care Basics | 2: Increasing Humus | 3: Maximizing Cover Crops | 4: Bare Ground and Tillage | 5: Plant Care | 6: Beneficial Insects | 7: Habitat Plantings | 8: Other Strategies for Insects | 9: Yet More Strategies | 10: Gardening All Four Seasons | 11: Eating Fresh
Gardening Through All Four Seasons
Think of the natural progression of the garden year: Spring comes and our own sap rises along with that of the greening world. After the doldrums of winter, our energy seems boundless to meet the demands of the new season. We prepare and plant beds tirelessly, try new varieties, keep every corner ship-shape. Summer comes and with it heat. And insects. And weeds. We are fighting the jungle, and losing. Still, amid the chaos we find an amazing level of productivity in the garden, and bring great meals of delicious fresh produce to the table. The first frosts of fall blacken the tomato vines and pole beans, spent plants turn brown and twist in the wind. The garden is a depressing place to be, and we are tired, and glad to bid the past season goodbye. Despite its rigors, we welcome the coming of winter—there is no gardening in winter! After we’ve had enough winter to get stir-crazy, the seed catalogs arrive with colorful pictures of bountiful harvests, and we begin excitedly planning the best season ever!
Does this describe your yearly garden cycle? It doesn’t have to be that way. With planning and careful application of some of the ideas above, the yearly roller-coaster can be evened out a bit, with less rush and panic and being overwhelmed in the summer—and continuing to garden, and harvest, right through the dead of winter!
Through the use of mulches and row covers, we can protect plantings from frost for an earlier start in the spring, and a later “shut-out” by cold weather in the fall.
By starting transplants in a protected space, we can produce husky, vigorous plants with a “head-start” on the season of three or four weeks (lettuces and brassicas) up to eight or ten weeks (peppers, tomatoes, onions, leeks).
Judicious variety selection can significantly extend the season in both directions. For example, lettuce and cabbage varieties vary tremendously in their ability to withstand cold (and heat). Also, choosing hardier types within a family of crops can extend the time you’re bringing something green to the table For example, kale and collards will still be producing deep into winter, long after the broccoli, cauliflower, and most cabbages have been frozen out.
Many gardeners would be surprised to learn just how cold-tolerant some varieties are. But there are many, many choices available for salads, greens, roots, and other vegetables that can be harvested deep into the winter cold—and a few which can be harvested right through the “dead” of winter in our climate.
Even lettuce—by no means the cold-weather king—can often be harvested until early or mid-December with no more protection than a mulch. Other salads and cooking greens that, with mulch protection, can grace our tables even after the ground-freezing cold has arrived include chicories, radicchio, some especially hardy cabbages, arugula, parsley, spinach, mustards, Chinese greens, and scallions and green onion tops.
Two less familiar salads, mache and claytonia, should reliably survive and continue to produce through even the severest winter in our climate.
Even more cold-hardy are some of the brassicas such as kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts—which will survive a less severe winter in our area and still be providing early greens in the spring.
And don’t forget the varieties which can be planted in time to establish in the fall; which then go dormant through the heart of winter; and which then “come on strong” early in the spring. Good candidates include spinach, cresses, dandelion, possibly peas, and especially the allium tribe—including onions from seeds (in my experience somewhat less freeze-hardy) or sets (more freeze-hardy), shallots, potato or “nesting” onions, leeks, and garlic.
Protected spaces such as cold frames and greenhouses offer season extension par excellence. If you have the space and can afford it, I highly recommend putting up a greenhouse. Note that the term “greenhouse” for some implies a structure with added artificial heat, enabling the growing of warm weather crops in winter. For my own part, I have no interest in harvesting tomatoes in January. There are numerous naturally cold-hardy plants, however, which—if given just an edge of additional protection from the cruelties of winter—will remain alive and produce salads and cooking greens in the deepest chill of any winter we are likely to have here in Virginia.
Winter gardening has its own special challenges and rewards. In the winter greenhouse, the season is not opening out into greater warmth and longer days, it is closing down in a period of greater darkness and deeper cold. (And with cold hardy crops, the darkness is likely to be a more critical factor than the cold.) Timing of late fall and winter crops is critical. If your plants have not made sufficient growth by the time of the shortest days, they will go into dormancy, awaiting sunnier times. During this time as well, “cut and come again” varieties like kale and spinach will regrow extremely slowly. You should plant what might seem at first a too-generous surplus to carry you through the slow-growth period.
The plus side of the winter dormancy is that, if you do get the timing right, your mature plants will also enter a period of dormancy, in which the “window of opportunity” for your harvest expands from the few days of a June lettuce into two or three months.
If you cannot afford or do not have space for a large greenhouse, experiment with growing with cold frames of any size. However, since the soil in the enclosed space acts as a heat sink, a reservoir for solar energy absorbed during the day, the bigger the “chunk” of sheltered soil, the more the temperature will be moderated at night.