In almost every climate, edible greens are scarce for part of the year - either a dry season or, more likely, a winter. For hundreds of thousands of years people had none of the refrigerators or pre-packaged foods we take for granted, yet still needed the human body’s natural ration of vitamins, starches and proteins. Starches presented no problem; dried grains like wheat and rice can last decades. Protein could be stretched through the winter; milk could be made into cheese, beans could be dried, eggs could be preserved in limewater or glasswater, meat could be salted, pickled and smoked, and of course animals were often slaughtered in winter.
Vitamins, found in fresh plants and needing to be frequently replenished, presented more of a challenge. Winter often brought high mortality, in part from vitamin deficiency – during Russia’s long winters, for example, people sometimes developed scurvy from a lack of Vitamin C. People did find many techniques for preserving vitamins in winter, and we can use these methods to save electricity and fuel today. One of the most basic involves fooling plants, as it were, into thinking they are not dead yet.
Last year, for instance, we ripped our cabbages out of the earth, roots and all, and hung them upside down in our shed, where they kept for almost two months. A thin layer of leaves grew brown and mouldy on the surface, but those could be simply peeled off, and the cabbages remained flawless underneath. We also stored root vegetables in boxes of sand, which kept the roots alive and free from pests. We had less success with this, as some of our roots either moulded or shrivelled, but it might work better in a less damp climate – meaning, pretty much anywhere. Other vegetables can simply be left in the earth for long periods of time, even under the snow. We left our parsnips under the earth for most of the winter, and the frost only seemed to sweeten them. As I write this I’m looking out the window on New Year's Day at a garden still filled with beetroots, carrots, leeks, celeriac, kale, broccoli, cabbages and onions – not even counting the herbs or what’s in the greenhouse. How well this works will depend on your crops and climate, but before you yank the crops out and then try to preserve them, see if they will keep where they are.
Around here farmers often clamped their potatoes, rich in vitamins as well as starch. They lay a bed of straw in a field, piled the potatoes on top, and covered them with more straw. Then they piled earth over the mound of straw, and the potatoes were relatively protected from the elements. You can preserve many fruits and vegetables in a medium that fungus, bacteria and other pests don’t like, either water that is too salty (salt pickles, sauerkraut), too acid (sweet pickles, onions and chutneys) or too sweet (syrup). You can boil the fruit and vegetables and add yeast to preserve them in alcohol, or add pectin to the syrup to firm it into jam. In some climates – although not ours – or if you have a dehydrator, you can dry your own raisins, sultanas, sun-dried tomatoes, prunes, as well as dried figs, apricots, cranberries, dates and so on. You can also slice vegetables – carrots, parsnips, beetroots, onions, cabbage and many more - dehydrate them for storage, and use them months later in soups or stews. Of course most of us are also familiar with dried herbs, and you can pull out whole plants in autumn and hang them upside down in the attic or pantry.
Few people, however, realise the number of wild leaves you can dry and preserve beyond the traditional herbs – we’ve preserved nettles, dandelion and fat hen, and could certainly try more. You don’t have to confine yourself to one method, of course, but can use a few at a time, staggering your methods through the winter months – if cabbage keeps in the ground until December where you are, and then keeps two more months hung in the shed, you can keep eating cabbage until February and sauerkraut after that. More than one method also allows you to a backup plan in case your beetroots don’t keep in the sand, or if a pest eats your cabbages. All these methods have one thing in common – they all take food grown in earlier months and, one way or another, keep it going during through the dark and cold. It is possible, however, to grow fresh crops through the winter months – even without a greenhouse. Even here, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, where the winter sun brings only brief and meagre light, we can eat freshly sprouted plants – more on that next column.