Following the crazy ‘cold-snap of a lifetime’ that fell bracingly here in Vancouver, Canada, between alternating flights of wet snow and deep snow, I pretty much gave up attempting to lift the frozen-shut lids of the cold-frames, or trying to sweep crusty blankets of snow off of the hooped and fleeced beds.
Ultimately, I conceded defeat and let nature do what she clearly wanted so badly to do. More lessons in the making from a wounded planet.
Heavy row cover, as it turns out, might be better at fending off frost, but it doesn’t carry its weight nearly as effectively during wet snow events as does more permeable light row cover.
The ‘felty’ heavy row cover holds enough water to create a rather thick and heavy ice blanket that snow clings to in such a way that the three elements become inseparable straight through to thaw.
Who would have thought that my best efforts at protection could become, under extreme weather circumstances, a full on food garden assault? In the end, after fruitless and comical attempts at rescue, about half of the brassicas broke under the strain of avalanche, and my high hoops were hooped.
Admittedly, the double-rail heavy steel hoops were an experiment in improved front food garden aesthetics, in consideration of neighbours looking down on last year’s 3/4” white PVC hoops over 18” lengths of coated rebar jammed into the soil. Were it not for the heavyweight fleece, the experiment would have been a success. Ironically, the lightweight row cover tied over single-rail light steel hoops did not hold as much ice and did not implode.
I have the summer to contemplate a stronger, less ‘plumbing supply looking’ solution. So far I haven’t been able to find the so-called ‘furniture grade’ black PVC pipe without specs printed all over it, in lengths greater than five feet.
Just this week I was able to get out into a snow-free food garden and assess damage done during the past several weeks. Not surprisingly, our beds look very different this January than they did last. However, I am surprised and delighted that, after extended periods of 14°F to 5°F (-10°C to -15°C), repeated extreme freeze-thaw cycles, abject saturation, and freezing cold winds, all was not lost in the stand-alone beds.
Tender varieties of spinach, cutting celery, and the outer leaves of some chicory, radicchio and endive packed it in entirely of course, but pretty much everything else under cold-frame cover fought the good fight, emerging bedraggled but intact.
A good clean and tidy in the beds will set things right in short order.
Unless something drastic happens, I am expecting a resurgence after mid February or so, once daylight hours increase enough to kick-start plant growth again, and allow me to putter past the current 4:30pm curtain call.
Last year, as an unbelievably busy fall rolled into winter, I knowingly left some frilly mustards, winter purslane and kales in four-inch and one-gallon pots inside the cold-frames. The promise that I made to myself, to get them into the ground before first frost, duly broken and eventually forgotten.
When the cold-snap happened, I thought of my poor wee potted plants and felt certain that they would die from exposure. Miraculously they made it through, I suppose because their potted soil stayed quite dry relative to the sodden surface soil upon which they sat. Note taken. Lesson learned. There are no coincidences.
On the north side of the house, inside our rickety old glasshouse, in seasonal shade now because of the low winter sun, I’d set a greenhouse heater to keep the temperature at just 33°F (.5°C), as an experiment to see if I could keep some remnant lettuce and beets alive long enough to transplant them eventually into our son's sheltered patio planter. The plants were started from seed on August 16th, but not all made it into the gardens.
Unbelievably, the feisty runts are still with us. I am gobsmacked by the resilience and determination of living things. This gives me hope and inspiration for not merely coping, but thriving during extreme winters and extreme summers in the not too distant future.
About 500-feet less elevation, at sea level, Million Gardens Movement co-founder Frank Giustra’s high-ceilinged ‘cold-frame house’ has an entirely different microclimate and entirely different challenges. Sea level lows didn’t fall below 23°F (-5°C), but the water table was higher during the free-thaw cycles. Some of Frank’s tender winter greens succumbed (drowned?) in the freezing cold. We had to run fans to keep the moist air circulating, but the brassicas LOVED their damp and cool easy bake oven. Note taken. Lesson learned. There are no coincidences.
Frank’s brokalli (cross between Calabrese broccoli and Chinese kale), sprouting broccoli, broccolini, and broccoli mini are now side-shooting gleefully after Frank snipped their tops some weeks ago. I am amazed at how productive brassicas can be, if their shoots are snipped right back to the stem time and again. Tender kale shoots too, respond eagerly.
Frank's heritage rapini too, is on its second flush — a good thing because he has grown fond of nutty, buttery, rapini pesto. His recipe is instinctual, and by taste. When asked to share suggested ingredient quantities, he offered, "rapini leaves, Domenica Fiore olive oil, pine nuts, one clove garlic, pinch salt, Pecorino cheese and a bit of water". Fair enough.
What I envision eventually, as an addition to my urban food gardens, is a climate change-friendly, custom designed indoor-outdoor flex space that is as resilient as nature, and that can respond to extremes as needed, to mitigate distress and ensure success during what is sure to be an extended period of adjustment.
I declare this as if it is an ideal, rather than a necessity born of losing battles that I cannot anticipate as climate change radically upsets natural balances in predators, pollinators, temperature, rainfall, humidity, wind, even sunlight and air quality.
The good news is that solutions can and will be found. We have been inspired to respond en masse, and to innovate as if our lives depend on it. Technology, artificial intelligence, open-source information sharing, and advances in renewable energy and energy storage, coupled with ancient and traditional wisdom, are enabling exciting ways and means of growing food in the most extreme climates, and in food deserts.
Permaculture has taught me that, sometimes giving in, sitting back and taking notes is more important than fighting back. By conceding defeat, and then observing patiently, I have learned valuable lessons that will serve our gardens well.
For now, I am celebrating small victories with a Persian-inspired winter carrot and celeriac salad with barberries, sour orange, black lime, pomegranate molasses and toasted pistachio. I am nearing the end of my annual stores of frozen sour orange juice cubes, and dehydrated sour orange slices, but thankfully citrus season is upon us.
The carrots and celeriac, rendered impossibly sweet and delicious by the cold, were gifts from our resilient winter garden.
Persian-Spiced Winter Carrot & Celeriac Salad
1/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sour orange* juice (Seville oranges work well)
1 teaspoon dried lime powder* (a.k.a. black lime powder. or lime juice)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses*
at least a pinch, and as much as 1/8 teaspoon 7-spice powder* (or ground allspice)
pinch sea salt
2 cups grated winter carrots
2 cups grated celeriac (jicama or all-carrot if celeriac unavailable)
handful winter mustard greens or winter purslane (or any baby greens of choice)
2 tablespoons barberries* (or currants)
2 tablespoons chopped roasted pistachios (or other nuts)
*available at Persian and middle eastern markets, in ethnic food aisles, and online.
Combine dressing ingredients, mix well, and store in fridge. After dressing the salad, there will be leftovers for another day.
Toss grated carrot and celeriac until well distributed. Add berries or currants and chopped nuts (leaving a few of each for garnish) and toss.
Place a small bed of undressed winter or baby greens in the centre of four cold serving plates or in shallow bowls.
Place one-quarter of the root vegetable mixture in the centre of each greens bed, garnish with reserved barberries and nuts, drizzle a small amount of dressing over the greens. Enjoy!
If grating celeriac somewhat in advance of assembly, be sure to massage with some acidulated water to prevent browning (1 teaspoon citrus juice in a half-cup of cold water is plenty).
At this time of year, citrus fruits are abundant in ethnic markets and green grocers. If you live near a Persian or Middle Eastern market, they are sure to have both sour oranges and sweet lemons.
In January or February annually, I buy a supply of both to stock my pantry with dried citrus slices, and also fill ice cube trays with portions of sour orange juice and rind. Once frozen, the sour orange juice/rind cubes provide on-demand Persian sunshine all year long to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and baking.
If you do not live near a specialty market, ask your green grocer to order some from their wholesale supplier, or order online. Better yet, try growing citrus at home, using old-fashioned Christmas lights and fleece to keep the sheltered trees warm in winter.
That’s it from me for now. Until next time I wish you happy gardening, and happy cooking!
Stay safe and warm.