- Getting Started
- Mental Barriers
- Saving Seeds
- Gleaning & Farming
- Mentoring & Internships
- Starting with Goats
- Food Politics
- CSA Partnership
- Heirloom Tomatoes
- Season Extension/Winter Gardening
- Hoophouse Magic
- The Power of Our Beliefs
Keeping the Light Alive
Harvesting Fresh on the Dark Side
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill
Seven years ago, I attended a popular, public workshop on “growing winter crops under cover without heat”, given by the “guru” of winter gardening, the infamous Eliot Coleman, of Maine. Harvesting fresh food in New England in the dead of winter, without any added heat? ...what’s not to like about THAT?! I vividly recall a serious-looking Coleman detailing his winter hoophouse growing schedule for the hundred or so “wannabes” and acolytes assembled there...
“...September 1st, I seed carrots, beets and chard... October, mustard, raddish, arugula... November through early December, kale, cilantro, spinach... And then, after mid-December, I QUIT planting seeds entirely, until after Valentine’s Day, when the light returns in mid-February...” intoned Coleman, with everyone dutifully scribbling down his instructions for sequencing winter crops...
...Being that it was already early December, and being the contrarian scamp that I am... I just COULD NOT WAIT to get home and, yes, plant a big bunch of seeds, smack in the middle of winter, in our unheated, high tunnel... What would happen, I wondered, if I “defied the master’s” instructions? Would they simply not come up, or just die off? What’s the worst that could happen, I thought, even if they all did perish? (As an avid seed saver, I already had many jars of seeds and could well afford to “fail”...)
So, on January 1st, six years ago, inside an unheated “high tunnel”, I threw down several thousand seeds, (lettuce, leeks, tatsoi and endive) genuinely unsure what their fate would be...
...And, although they didn’t grow uniformly, quickly, robust, or pretty, to my utter delight, over the next three months, through periods of cold and mild, most of those hardy seeds actually DID germinate, survive, and then, finally, grow and flourish in the spring greenhouse!
Now in all fairness, Coleman was not claiming that seeds CAN’T germinate and grow without heat in the dead of winter, but rather he was describing his own, “sustainable”, growing-for-market, business plan, based realistically on winter’s duration, extremes, and an unsentimental “cost/benefit analysis”...
And soon after my little winter germination experiment, I quickly recognized that a few hundred, gnarly, “guerrilla-grown”, winter greens could hardly be justified by a simple, dollars and cents calculus, as they just didn’t grow fast enough... Nonetheless, for six years, I’ve enthusiastically repeated the same procedure...
You see, for many backyard permaculturists and other small-plot food producers, the long-term motivation, the raison d’etre is no longer just production and sales, but also stewardship, soil/habitat building, diversity and infra-structure, while simultaneously producing a “flow” of valuable, fresh food, especially “against” the calendar.
The still-skeptical might ask, “...but since unheated winter greens grow so slowly, why bother?” The answer is apparent to anyone who’s ever stepped into an active, winter greenhouse, of any size, on a sunny day, and been greeted by that rush of warm, moist air, the smell of compost, and a carpet of edible greens, waxy and sweet...
In a world turned upside down with sectarian violence and bigotry, we are each challenged in our own way, to resist the winds of hatred that threaten mind, body and nation. In a small, but potent way, nurturing and stewarding plants (and animals!) through winter can be a powerful healing tonic and life lesson for any one of us. Plants harbor no grudges or resentments, and remain reliably, authentically, dispassionately themselves, responding to the rhythms of earth, weather, and to biology itself, without regret, conceit, anger or ennui... And whether you are a “real” farmer or merely a “backyard warrior”, wannabe, or “foody fanatic”, nurturing green life in winter offers a potent metaphor and psychic antidote to the latest news cycle or Trump insult...
There’s also the unmistakeable psychic benefit gained from a renewable source of live food at your fingertips, every day of the year... Today we understand that access to healthy food of this ilk must not be limited to the wealthy, but rather should be the right of all who eat. And given what we’ve learned, with a bit of planning, protection and a love for cold-hardy cultivars, anyone with a small patch of earth and a few, inexpensive materials can also contribute!
The key is to start early, (Aug-Sept) seeding cold-tolerant crops under the protection of unheated “tunnels”, hoophouses, cold-frames, or the like, in order to grow big enough to withstand the stresses of winter and survive to spring. These “heroic” plants can slow way down, shed moisture (defensively wilt) and go nearly “dormant” while the temperatures remain frigid, but can also jump back to life, over and over, when the conditions improve. The unheated, winter hoophouse, then, is most accurately likened to a living, “outdoor refrigerator” that doesn’t grow a lot, but keeps a nice cache of fresh greens for winter consumption....
We live in the age where “permaculture” and the “food movement” have merged, joined forces, and spawned numerous intriguing and useful “offspring”, further blurring the lines between “real farmers” and the rest of us. Plants teach us to live fully in the present, without complaint, bargaining or regret. Critters help us refocus on the mundane yet vital functions of our own biology, relationships, and survival on the planet: food, water, protection from the elements and on our sometimes tenuous connection with the “herd”... And they teach us, yet again, that enlightened horticulture (at any scale) offers a uniquely hopeful avenue to nourish both the belly AND the soul, while feeding the head and heart, to boot.