Letter Re: Gardening Year-Round

Knowing how to garden and grow one’s own food (or at least a significant portion of it) is one of the most important skills a person can have, especially during a “hard-times” survival situation. Fresh vegetables are a vital part of one’s diet, and they can be a great help in extending the length of time your stored emergency food lasts.

I’ve always been interested in how people centuries ago survived through long winters. Clearly, storing food grown and raised during the warm months was a universal strategy. However, people also raised food year-round in winter gardens. France, especially, has a centuries- old tradition of winter gardening. Appropriate crop selection, planning, and the use of low-tech weather protection allowed for fresh vegetables throughout the year. There are over thirty cold-season crops that can be easily grown for salads, soups, stews, stir-fry and more. Vegetables like carrots, parsnip, miner’s lettuce, cabbage, salsify, celeriac, leeks, onions, escarole, mache, tatsoi, sorrel, radish, and mizuna can all grace your table and can bridge the gap between the Fall harvest and the first crops of Spring. The reason winter-gardening is not common in the U.S. is simply because we have no tradition of it. Our winters are colder, and European immigrants may have assumed that their customary gardening methods wouldn’t work here. Or it may be that plentiful game and fishing opportunities in the New World led people to put their energies towards those food sources during the cold months, allowing the knowledge of winter-growing to gradually die out.

Now, you might think “well, that’s fine for Europe, but I live in the northern part of the U.S. I have to shovel snow all winter, so there’s no way winter gardening could ever work for me”. You’d be mistaken. It’s the amount of sunshine (the day-length), not the cold itself, that’s the limiting factor. Even the coldest parts of the continental U.S. get plenty of light in the wintertime due to our favorable latitude. Eliot Coleman, the author of the book Four-Season Harvest (which I highly recommend) lives in Maine and has successfully grown winter crops in unheated cold frames, greenhouses, and low plastic-covered tunnels for decades. He and his wife have extensively researched and tested traditional winter-gardening techniques, incorporating modern advances while still keeping things as low-tech and inexpensive as possible.

Here are the very basics: Plants do little actual growing during the winter months. Most of their real growth occurs during the fall, after which the rate of growth slows down markedly. Your protected winter-garden space becomes a bit like a giant version of your fridge’s crisper drawer. The trick is timing your planting so that your cold-tolerant veggies will have enough time to grow before serious winter weather hits. Once the weather turns cold there’s very little work you have to do. You don’t need to water or weed. You just go out and harvest fresh, green plants as you need them. There are a few salad plants that will actively germinate and grow during winter, and you can fill in “gaps” in the garden with these greens as you harvest other veggies. In January and February you can plant more cold-season crops. They’ll germinate and grow because by then the days will have become long enough again to support active growth. This will allow you to continue to have fresh vegetables until your (more familiar) Spring veggies mature and are ready for harvest. Needless to say, summer crops would follow those planted in spring, and the growing cycles would repeat. Crop rotation and building and maintaining soil fertility are especially important when you are growing year-round, and “Four-Season Harvest” covers these topics as well.

I encourage anyone out there who is interested in learning to grow food year-round to read Mr. Coleman’s book and give it a try. It’s economical, lots of fun, and has the potential to significantly increase your likelihood of maintaining food stores during difficult times.

Two other gardening books, oriented towards growing during the warm months, are also well worth a read. Carol Deppe”s “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times” and Steve Solomon’s “Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times” deserve a place on any prepper’s bookshelf. They focus on choosing plants and gardening methods that are sustainable and that require the least amounts of external inputs (water and fertility). Combine these warm-weather concepts with winter-gardening and you have a very “solid” foundation for growing and harvesting food on a continual basis throughout the year.

Remember, though, success in gardening depends on experience as much as know-how. A book on a shelf doesn’t help you unless you put the ideas into practice. It takes time and effort to learn what works and doesn’t work in your particular geographical area. So read and learn, for sure…then go out and grow stuff! – J.S.