Autumn is a busy season of squirreling away the garden’s bounty for winter nourishment. These days it seems that every waking moment is consumed by picking, preparing or preserving food. However, to be honest, standing over a hot stove is not my favorite place to be when the weather is gorgeous outdoors. So although we do have plenty of beans in the freezer and tomatoes on the canning shelves, I am also contributing to our winter food storage by doing more planting in the garden.
A number of years back I purchased Eliot Coleman’s book “Four Season Harvest” from Lehman’s, and it has transformed our winter food plan. Eliot is an innovative organic gardener from Maine who runs his gourmet salad business during the winter months using various cold frames and high tunnels. I decided that if he can do it in Maine, I can surely do it in Ohio and the past seven years our family has eaten fresh salad greens all winter long out of my cold frames.
The concept is basically to choose winter hardy greens (spinach, mache, kale and arugula are among our favorites) and to protect them from their two worst enemies in winter, the cold and wind. I plant most crops so that they will be at 80% or 90% maturity by the time November hits and then they stay in a “holding pattern” waiting to be picked. So right now I am planting Winter Density lettuce starts into cold frame areas, transplanting mache plants to every available corner and starting more spinach seed. Other greens like Swiss chard, bok choy, cilantro and claytonia are also getting added in smaller amounts – and don’t forget the onion scallions and leeks. I also toss in a few cold loving edible flower plants like calendula and johnny jump ups to cheer up my winter salads. A few things like spinach and lettuce will get a second planting around the middle of October for over-wintering. They will sprout and stay tiny all winter and then take off growing when spring arrives.
We use an eclectic mix of cold frame structures (all unheated) to protect these delicacies in our garden. The largest is a 10×20 greenhouse built from a kit and we also use cement blocks with an old storm door, recycled trampoline legs that are attached to skids and covered with plastic and my favorite little guys, white plastic barrel halves. The barrels are easily mobile and here is one with three rows of spinach underneath. The covers will go onto the crops around late October and then I can harvest as needed throughout the winter months. We can have glorious salads for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The pickings will get a little slimmer for January and February with spinach, mache and kale being the hardiest guys in the coldest weather.
Being able to supplement our stored winter food with just a few fresh leafy greens really adds variety plus gives a nutritional boost. You can also imagine the great winter therapy it is to linger in the greenhouse when the sun has warmed it up to 60 degrees on a January day when the outdoor temperature is in the teens! Once March arrives and the temperature starts rising again, everything in the cold frames takes off growing again and we have salad coming out our ears, plus the cold frames work well for planting a few early peas and starting other spring crops like broccoli and cabbage.
So if you are looking for ways to stretch your gardening season and add variety to your winter fare it’s not too late to toss some spinach and lettuce seeds in your garden, jimmy up a cold frame and when the snow starts flying, curl up with “Four Season Harvest” along with your freshly harvested salad.