Easy, practical, delicious – growing an organic food garden is a skill anyone can learn: that's my main message! It doesn't have to involve a lot of work and certainly doesn't require a big investment in special products or equipment.
The coastal Pacific Northwest is a wonderful place to garden because so many vegetables can be harvested fresh out of the garden all winter. You can grow a surprising amount in a small area because it produces food all year. Go out to my garden in January and you will find it full of carrots, beets, leeks, celeriac, lettuce, spinach, parsley and other leafy greens, as well as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and much else besides. With a planting season that lasts six months and a harvest season all 12 months of the year, our plants and planting schedules are unique to the region.
The key to this bounty is getting the timing right. That means starting seeds while there is still enough time left in the growing season for plants to mature by late fall. I like to think of the winter garden as a 'living refrigerator' – things don't grow in the short, cold days, but everything is still alive. Be sure to look for frost hardy, winter adapted varieties. For some crops, such as carrots, beets and Swiss chard, I haven't found noticeable differences in hardiness, but for lettuce, broccoli, leeks, cabbage and others it is essential to choose winter-hardy varieties.
There is also a spring dividend as wintered-over plants continue to yield well through the spring. This means there is no period without a harvest as there is with a spring-planted garden. Once you establish a year-round garden schedule, you won't need to work so hard to get an early start. You can relax and sow later in the spring when the soil is warm because there will be plenty to harvest from the garden from March through May. Overwintered greens grow a new crop of leaves in the spring, root crops stay in good condition outdoors until the end of March (leeks are fine until May), purple sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflower produce heads from February through May.
The resilience of overwintered plants is also a good thing when it comes to surviving weird spring weather. With their large and deep root systems, mature plants survive much more weather adversity than seedlings would at this time of year – something gardeners will value even more as the changing global climate is projected to bring increasingly wild weather patterns.
Oh, and one last bonus: overwintered plants send up flower stalks in late spring. Not only are the flowers attractive to bees and other beneficial insects, but from the flowers it is but a short step to saving your own seeds! I call this the 'have your kale and eat it too' bonus.
Linda Gilkeson presented workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.
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