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Amazing Cold Weather Greens to Grow

| 3/1/2013 10:55:24 AM

winter leeksThere's a special fifth season in my gardening year, and it falls between winter and spring. By the middle of February there's little chance, even in the coldest climes, that the ground will freeze hard for longer than a few days, and yet I can feel that the weather will stay wet and chilly for months. In this special season there may be snow, penetrating icy rain, wind and fog, and yet the occasional balmy day too.

This fifth season is when the cold-season crops are at their very best…and most valuable in terms of economy, convenience, and nutrition. I'm talking about succulent crops like:

  • mustards, for tangy and attractive greens
  • collards, for meaty green fiber to go with any meal
  • kales, for distinctive landscape interest plus mild taste
  • cabbages, for beautiful meat or vegetarian dishes
  • spinach, for incomparable salads and soufflés
  • leeks, for gourmet touches at pennies a serving

All those crops can be planted as seeds directly in the ground, either in late summer or early fall (and I am experimenting with planting mid-winter, too). The seeds get started, and then the young plants have sufficient vigor naturally to withstand sub-freezing temperatures and burst into fresh growth every time conditions warm up a bit. I like to say these plants have antifreeze in their veins (so do many cold-hardy herbs, like French tarragon, bronze fennel, rosemary, sage, thyme, and bay laurel.)

When the spring gets too advanced, too warm and eventually too dry, cold crop plants actually get weak and stop producing. I've seen it year after year, and now look forward to my winter garden's greatest utility: as an inexpensive little greengrocer's shop just outside the front door.

Then there are some crops that may do well from seed sown in fall, but not necessarily. They may do exceptionally well when sown in the "fifth season," around late February or early March. These are true cold-loving seed crops:mustard greens 

  • lettuce; must be sown nearly on top of the soil, so winter/spring planting with lots of watering may show good results
  • peas; sugar snaps and snow peas must be sown in almost cold soil, and will spring into life nicely
  • cresses; they thrive in cold, wet spring soil and provide a vitamin tonic
  • radishes; quick growing, they handle cold well and pack a lot of flavor and color
  • potatoes; so satisfying and healthy, and super easy to grow from seed potato

Learning how to promote these cold weather crops in your own garden takes time; a full year, perhaps, when you can capture local climate conditions anytime but mid-summer (when cold weather crops will struggle with too-high temperatures and too-low rainfall).

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