Tips for Winter Vegetables and Gardening

Northeastern homesteaders share their secret to harvesting from a winter vegetable garden.

  • Lettuce
    Members of the Brassica genus make especially good candidates for winter gardens.

  • Lettuce

"You mean you actually grow produce all winter without a green house?"

Our wide-eyed friends were understandably skeptical as we carried snow shovels — and a few more conventional garden tools — out to the vegetable plot. Later, however, when we all shared a delicious meal that included freshly harvested turnips, carrots and brussels sprouts, our guests stopped questioning our sanity and began to ask how they too could plant in midsummer and eat fresh from-the-earth vegetables all winter. We were quick to tell them that almost any one who has a healthy appetite for just-picked garden produce can, with a bit of extra planning and work, duplicate our results. After all, we manage to do it despite the punishing winters that are typical on our New York state homestead!

Gardening During Winter: A Matter of Survival

My wife Sherrie and I actually started year-round gardening out of sheer necessity. During the awful winter of '76, we found ourselves isolated from our town neighbors, weakened by repeated attacks of flu and out of work. It was obvious to us that we'd have to be able to produce all of our own food if we were going to survive many more years in the country.

We had, for several years prior to that, been stretching our growing season to what we'd assumed were its limits. Each spring, as soon as the ground was workable, we'd set out our first cabbage plants and begin to germinate other seeds on wet newspaper in the kitchen. At the opposite end of the gardening year, our vegetable plot usually kept producing right up until the hard frosts of October. And that, we thought, was about all we could do short of moving south.

But then we read about what we now consider to be one of the great moments in modern homesteading, as reported in Helen and Scott Nearing's classic Living the Good Life. It seems the couple accidentally left a lettuce plant under a bench inside a windowed shed and later found that it had survived a night of far-below-freezing temperatures! Learning from that fortunate discovery, the Nearings developed their "sun-heated" greenhouse.

Well, we didn't have the cash necessary to build an enclosed growing space, but we did scrounge up an old sheet of polyethylene plastic to experiment with. One raw morning in mid-March, we carefully placed some sprouted seeds in the mud-and-ice slurry that had formed on a protected, sunny spot in the garden, and propped the plastic over them. During the next four weeks we were hit by three heavy snowfalls ... and after each blizzard we'd carefully lift the plastic blanket and shake the snow off. By early spring the clear material had captured enough solar energy to effectively warm the soil, and the hardy seedlings prospered in their mini-hothouse.

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