How to Manage a Winter Garden
The best thing about winter salads is how easy it is to obtain a harvest. Cold months mean chores don’t have to be done in the heat, plus the pests and diseases are mostly dormant. You can’t beat the satisfaction of walking into the kitchen on a gray day carrying an armload of vibrant produce!
Winter gardening at Appalachian Feet is a combination of extending the growing season with cold-hardy varieties and frost protection while preparing beds for next season’s crops. It’s a great time of year for site selection, soil preparation, and choosing plants.
For a long time now, the center of our yard has been a series of branching pattern rows. These were useful for crop rotation, but we’ve become skeptical of its benefits in a small scale polycultured garden. Our thought is that plant guilds and an exceptionally healthy soil food web will do a superior job of keeping plant illness at bay. Both our old and new designs have three main pathways that act like arteries for wheelbarrow supplies. The new design will involve more keyhole beds than straight rows, and some strategic swales for rainwater collection.
Instead of drip irrigation, we’ve decided to go with more hugelkultur. Our neighborhood is a bounty of unwanted wood (people pile it on the side of the road) and it takes us less than an hour to drive around and fill the truck bed with logs within a mile of our house.
Keyhole beds are designed to optimize growing space vs. space “wasted” on pathways. Paths can have plenty of stacked functions (we use ours for composting, growing mushrooms, travel, and burying irrigation lines), but on a small property, growing space is even more valuable. The idea is that every space in a bed is able to be reached for planting, weeding, harvesting, mulching, and other maintenance with the least possible area devoted to pathways.
Another goal for some of our keyhole beds is for their height to block our chicken’s view of the garden. The saying “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” was derived from livestock being able to see what they are missing. If they can’t see juicy tomatoes hanging on the vine or brilliant greens just waiting to be savored, they don’t feel as inspired to attempt an escape. We had considered buying a roll of 2′ high plastic to run along the bottom of our chicken fence, but we’d much rather use hugel beds to obscure the view. As an added benefit, we can plant crops chickens like to eat along the fenceline so they can peck the leaves through the fence holes. A little comfrey bocking #4 and coppiced mulberries ought to make them much happier than plastic sheeting.
Our chickens have enjoyed a little company lately, due to an adjacent neighbor acquiring their own chickens. Someone knocked on our door today to tell me that chickens were on the loose down the street. I wish I had a picture of his look of surprise when I said they weren’t my chickens! This is one trend I am happy to spread around. Also, if you’re worried, our neighbor’s chickens are now safely back in the coop.
Cover crops are another great way to use the winter garden. You get to build soil, thwart weeds, retain water, and potentially harvest a small crop. We pinch tender shoots off the Austrian winter peas to put in salads, and we’ll be using milky oats for tea and medicine in the spring.
Most people don’t realize the myriad of crops that do well in winter gardens. We’re currently growing kale, collards, raab, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna, arugula, salad radishes, daikons, rutabagas, turnips, lacy mustards, regular mustards, minutina, beets, spinach, lamb’s quarters, fennel, celery, carrots, cilantro, chervil, parsley, parsnips, scallions, endive, radicchio, chickory, lettuce, mache, chickweed, and more.
The majority of winter crops are easier grown directly in the ground from seed. Use more seeds than you think you’ll need and thin them to the proper spacing. Once the crops start maturing, you can harvest the largest plants to provide more room for the remaining plants to grow. For example, we plant our turnips closer than the recommended spacing and begin harvesting baby turnips when they reach ping pong ball size. As the crowded beds are thinned, the remaining turnips can reach sizes as great as a softball.
We also try to reduce kitchen preparation by taking care of some of the chores while we’re still outside. Turnip and beet greens are prized in our kitchen, but we’re less excited about hairy radish leaves. These get pulled off and fed to the chickens as a treat before we ever enter the house. Another trick for pre-prepping veggies is our winter rain bucket. In the winter, we don’t have to worry about mosquitoes infesting standing water. Leaving a bucket in the garden means we have a handy place to dip muddy root vegetables; thus, very little soil makes it into the kitchen. This water can also be used to irrigate thirsty plants.
Salad greens are harvested right into our salad spinner. Just a few snips with the scissors and we only have to rinse and spin.
The beauty of low hoops are their low tech nature. You just need some sort of hoop frames (a smooth, curved edge is easiest to pull plastic on and off) and UV resistant plastic. All the heat comes from solar activity, no electricity is required. The rows should be covered when temperatures are below 50 ° F and removed when temps rise above 50 ° F.
It’s important to leave the plastic on when temps are below 50 ° F, even if your veggies can take freezing temperatures. Plants that take freezing temperatures are not actively growing when they are that cold. They survive, but just sit there. If you want winter veggies to ripen in the coldest months, row covers are required to keep them warm enough for active growth.
We watered daily from the time of sowing until the plants reached 2″ in height. After that, we mulched lightly and have mostly used rainwater for irrigation. Winter gardening requires more attentiveness to weather reports in order to plan when the covers should stay on or not.
Winter crops have few pests (no cabbage worms!) but do occasionally get aphids and slugs. If infestations get bad, try leaving the cover off hardier plants on a frosty (but not freezing) night to reduce the population. For aphids, you can also purchase mailorder ladybugs and release them under the plastic. If you’re lucky enough to have ducks, run them through your uncovered plants to take care of the slug problem.
Winter weeds are another issue under low hoops. We remove volunteer seedlings like purple deadnettle, henbit, and speedwell before they set seed. We usually leave chickweed unless it is crowding a crop we want more. Try some chickweed in your salad and you’ll see why!
Our favorite source of seeds for the winter garden is Seeds From Italy. When it comes to broadcasting large beds of spinach, lettuce, or carrots we don’t want wimpy seed packets with less than a teaspoon of seeds in it. Seeds From Italy still provides impressively ample seed packets at a home gardener price.