In my last post, I listed some ways we preserve our fruit and vegetables for vitamins during the winter. It is possible, however, to grow fresh crops through the dark months – even without a greenhouse, and even where we live, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, where the winter sun brings only brief and meagre light.
The white leaves of chicory, for example, make a refreshing salad in winter, and can be grown in a pot in the shed or closet. Start by planting chicory in your outdoor garden in spring, and let its broad green leaves grow out all through the summer and autumn. These green summer leaves are edible but bitter, and exist only to swell the root underneath.
Around November, dig up the now-massive root, decapitate the leaves and throw them into the compost. Plant the root in a bucket and scoop in soil — damp but not soaking — until the top of the root lies even with the surface. Set the bucket in the closet or other cool, dark area, and place another bucket upside-down over it to make sure the root remains in darkness. The plant has spent all year storing energy in the root to grow more leaves in spring, and when placed in warm soil should ideally sprout a head of white leaves, like a small cabbage. It worked for us, although not as well as we had hoped. It certainly sprouted leaves, although they came up at different speeds and ended up looking more like unkempt hair. You should get a few crops of the chicory from each root, but we learned the hard way to check under the bucket daily – leave it too long and the leaves can rot quickly. Having satisfied ourselves that we could do this, we decided not to grow more the next year – the summer chicory took up space in our garden we would rather devote to other things. Try it yourself, though, and you might have more productive results.
Other crops like rhubarb can also be grown outside and then brought indoors, and while rhubarb farmers usually do this to encourage the stem to grow long and tender, you could do the same thing to keep rhubarb fresh in winter. I have not tried this one myself, but give it a try and see if it works for you. Or you could grow sprouts – not Brussels sprouts, but beans or seeds that have been soaked in water and begun to germinate into seedlings, as they would in soil. Sprouting might be the only kind of kitchen gardening that almost anyone can do, almost anywhere, even a rented room in the city, a bunk, a barrack, a shed or wherever you happen to be. Sprouts require no land, yard, garden, tools, infrastructure or practice, the crops come to fruition in a few days rather than a few months, and most can be eaten with no cutting, peeling, cooking or preparation. * Best of all, they are one of the cheapest healthy foods you can get – I once calculated that a 500g bag cost me 1.60 euros and lasted four weeks. That’s 40 cents per week, or eight cents a day for lunch.
You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants — I favor mung beans — but avoid any plants whose leaves would be toxic, like tomatoes or potatoes. The details of how to sprout will vary depending on what kind of seeds and containers you have, but the basic idea remains the same – keep the seeds wet until they are a good size to eat. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I use plastic tubs - discarded from a nearby take-away restaurant, with holes poked in the top to allow the sprouts to breathe – or you could use pottery, a plastic bag, or just about any food-safe container. I rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about 12 hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit, damp but not in standing water – rinse and re-dampen them every 12 hours if possible, and every 24 if necessary. If you forget for a day or two the beans will probably recover, but tend to start growing roots, making them tougher and less tasty.
In addition to mung beans I recommend lentils, although they grow a day or two more slowly and I find them less tasty. I occasionally sprout the seeds of fenugreek, broccoli, alfalfa, or clover, but generally find them too expensive for the small amount of sprouts they yield, and they run a higher risk of moulding before fully sprouting. Larger beans also presented a problem; Adzuki beans were even slower and less tasty than lentils, I found, and soybeans – the common sprout of Chinese stir-fry – often rotted before there was enough living sprout to make it worthwhile. Of course you can grow other kinds of plants inside - young herbs in the window, or cress for a bit of extra greenery on those sandwiches. You can bring established plants or even small trees in from outside and keep them in pots, if they will continue to flourish in the window or greenhouse. Come up with your own ideas and let me know how well they worked.
What all these methods have in common, though, is that they allow people to have enough vitamins to get by during the winter, on almost no money and without the refrigeration and convenience stores upon which most of us depend. If anyone wanted to live independently, or were hard up for cash or transportation – or if the winter power went out, as happened to half a million North Americans this winter – they could continue to feed their family healthy foods until the first shoots of spring. Soybean sprouts, I’m told, are an exception – they must be cooked.