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My Winter Garden

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

"The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics. " --Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a raised bed, protected by fleece covered hoops, kalette buds pose like fancy ladies dressed in frost-bitten ruffles

This mid-winter day was a cold one, yet in typical fashion here in the 'southwet' Pacific Northwest coast, the temperature plunged to -4C / 25F and then rose to +3C / 37F rather quickly. Our winters are growing more wet and temperate as a result of climate change, leaving it seems, fewer daylight hours in which to revel in sparkle.

The ground is more sodden, for longer, and the feathery, spongy, bright green mosses that spring to life during winter, on the ground, in the beds and in the trees, spreads further and further into and onto anything and everything their tiny rhizoids can grab hold. We experience seasons deeply here, which I love. Standing outside in my garden in the rain, surrounded by temperate rainforest is a privilege. Today though, the damp solidified briefly and crystalized like hoarfrost on the breathy respiration of every growing thing. The low, mid-day sun of winter challenged my camera, forcing me too to lay low ahead of the shadows.

Over the span of just 90 minutes, the garden thawed and veggie dog Dave and I were harvesting baby greens

I started morning garden rounds late today, and in the space of just 90 remarkable minutes from noon until 1:30pm, the temperature increased by 6C / 12F, changing our icy cold winter wonderland back into a lush and productive ecosystem where vegetables and herbs grow slowly, slowly through the winter. I watched, entirely delighted, as the hunched and wilted baby winter greens - red kyona mustard, purslane, komatsuna mustard, and Italian endive literally 'sprang' to life inside their cold frames, like so many tiny green and purple dancers reaching up to the sun. It was laughable, magical.

Cold frames went from icy and opaque to drippy, warm and humid in short order, and their contents sprang to life

The beet greens and radicchio shed their dull weight and straightened up beautifully, slowly, even the tender second-growth radicchio hiding under its equally wounded and recovered third-growth peppermint stick celery brightened dramatically, as if by magic. Hardier plants like kalettes, Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and arugula, under protection of 'lightweight' (crazy but true) row cover recovered relatively quickly with the sun. Only the sturdy spinach, sprouting purple broccoli, and winter kale maintained their original colour and postures through the night.

Frozen radicchio, dull and droopy, brightened and recovered quickly. Tender greens must thaw before harvesting
Winter sun breathed life and structure back into Detroit Supreme and Bulls Blood beets in a hoop covered raised bed

By utilizing a handful of basic permaculture principles that help us capture and store thermal energy, maintain soil biology, improve drainage and adapt to change quickly, we are practicing zone denial well enough to enjoy a handful of homegrown produce and herbs during the winter, straight through (fingers crossed) to the spring planting season.

Frank's rapini, wilted & bowed under the weight of winter and frozen condensation, stood to attention from the sun

We try to incorporate all 12 permaculture principles year-round - modified and re-imagined of course to suit our suburban property, but in planning and managing our winter garden, these five principles figure prominently:

  • observe and interact - utilize mulch and/or row cover and/or cold frames according to bed siting, wind exposure, and plant hardiness; and check wellness daily.

  • capture and store energy - the thermal mass of our low-profile raised beds, and substantial stone planters capture and store solar heat (degrees are site-specific).

  • use renewable resources - protect in-bed worm composts with a layer of mulch and minimize feeding relative to reduced daylight hours.

  • use small and slow solutions - plant vegetables and greens that are cold-hardy and grow slowly; be patient and celebrate reduced and infrequent harvests.

  • encourage feedback and respond - adjust winter cover accordingly as conditions and temperatures change, and accept failures gracefully and gratefully.

Photographed though its light & water permeable rowcover, Brussels sprouts & Astro arugula embrace low winter sun

It's slow going for sure, and certainly there have been casualties. Of the two varieties of Brussels sprouts I have growing in a full-sun tomato bed that receives only part-sun during the winter, the Gustus is clearly outperforming the Jade Cross which seems to be melting at its crown. The burring sprouts themselves seem unfazed along their stalks, but we shall see what happens as time passes, more rain falls, and more freeze-thaws cycle through.

Cold & crispy on the outside. Hoops, rowcover & mulched in-bed composts keep resident worms warm below ice level

To be fair, both varieties of Brussels sprouts went into the ground very late. I lost the first seedcrop in their garden beds to dreaded cabbage moth caterpillars; I was too late with the rowcover. I lost the second crop while it was still in the greenhouse, newly potted up into 4-inch pots. A nameless husband-type person left the greenhouse door open just long enough to let in a single, lethal white moth. "She was so pretty", he offered in defense.

The stalwart Gustas and Jade Cross Brassicas struggling valiently in their beds are a third crop, planted out October 24th, three days after the first frost. Lessons learned for next year - one variety, immediate row cover, greenhouse door closed (and vents screened), more sun.

I leave you with some lovely images, and wholehearted encouragement to look closely and often at your garden, however small. It's whole world can change in the time we don't take to observe.

The herb spiral's hermal mass lends uncommon warmth to resident watercress, lemon balm, sage, thyme, oregano ++

To learn about my urban permaculture garden and how to incorporate healthful time, money and environment saving principles into your garden, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.

If you haven't subscribed to MF's Million Gardens Movement newsletter, please do.

Happy gardening!

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