The hoop house on our farm has two seasonal looks. In autumn, after we clear out tired summer tomato plants, we plant some winter greens. Lettuce, arugula, bok choi, Chinese cabbage, kale, scallions. Healthy cold-tolerant crops that feed me all the winter. Buttery leaf lettuce and delicate arugula filled my salad bowl in December. Bok choi was still tender in January. Kale chips and green smoothies sustained me through February. I am deeply grateful.
Winter does special things to greens. A touch of cold sweetens kale, and the arugula is barely spicy. We eat young fresh bok choi through the cold months. I plant extra bok choi to keep in the hoop until it produces little shoots that look just like broccoli. I harvest them at that point and they are delicious! They need to be snapped off or the plant will bolt and flower. Keeping them harvested, though, the plant keeps producing the sprouting broccoli shoots. Raw like salad, or sautéed lightly, they are a delicious sprouted green shoot. A bonus veggie from the winter bok choi plants.
I was amazed that the winter greens survived our unusually cold Maryland winter, with temperatures steady in the mid-teens. We covered the crops with thick row cover on those coldest nights. We have had crops die in the hoop from frost damage in past years, so the row cover must have served us well. Another trick for coldest nights is to water heavily at night or run the driptape all night. The water, instead of the plant, absorbs the cold energy. This technique is used in Florida orchards during cold snaps.
When we first set up the hoop a few years ago, I thought I would resent the extended season. I would resent the additional work that would need to be done. I would resent the opportunity or demand to tend plants during the winter season, when I usually take a much-needed break from fieldwork. I would resent the same opportunity when it rains—I would lose my excuse to take a rainy day off farming. I prepared myself to just say no to the hoop when I really need a break. This farming thing could get a bit too intense year-round. Sometimes a girl just needs a break.
Instead of feeling resentful, I have felt surprisingly grateful, even for the work. It is a haven of shelter and green space in the early spring weeks, when I am eager to get my hands in the dirt but it is too cold to start outdoor work. I am grateful when I can work in the hoophouse on a rainy day, still utilizing a volunteer’s helping hands under cover that might have otherwise been rained out. I was also surprised at how little work is entailed in setting up the winter greens. They grow slowly and weed-free in the wintertime, so there is little maintenance to do.
In mid-April, I had to prepare myself for transition. Pull up those delicious every-producing greens. How would I make it to mid-May when the outdoor spring greens were ready? Now I’m getting really spoiled; I eat well all winter long and have a hard time with a few transitional weeks. I can do this. The plants knew it was time. They were all starting to bolt into flowers more and more rapidly. It was time to clear the hoophouse to prepare for summer tomatoes. I had to set my intention and pull the plants.
I had to envision juicy heirloom tomatoes, in order to remind myself that it would be worth it. Deep red Black Krim. Green-shouldered rich Cherokee Purple. Fruity sweet Pineapple tomatoes. Green Zebras, a magic tomato that ripens into two shades of green with a blush of yellow. I love heirloom tomatoes. I love heirloom tomatoes. I love heirloom tomatoes.
Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and Blog.HouseInTheWoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to www.HouseInTheWoods.com.