top of page
  • info630005

Winter Survivors

by Peter Heffelfinger


Amidst the spring rush to get seeds and starts into the slowly warming soil, the last of the overwintering garden is still supplying fresh greens and florets while we wait for the first lettuces and early radishes. The hardy survivors are the vegetable bridge between the last of winter and the first edibles from the oncoming growing season.

Last fall I planted for the first time starts of Mendocino Purple Broccoli. This 190-day overwintering variety survived the week of mid-winter low temperatures without the protection of a floating row cover or a plastic hoop house. This spring it has been supplying small, deep purple florets suitable for soup garnish, stir fries, or just fresh nibbles. I have previously had success growing Valentine, a purple winter broccoli that forms small, full heads, appropriately, in mid-February.

Another initial trial was several types of Radicchio, listed only for late fall use and not expected to be winter hardy. However, a few heads of these Italian salad greens, luckily protected in a raised bed edged with cedar boards, came through the cold undamaged and are now heading up as they prepare to bolt. The leaves of both the red and green varieties are a welcome bitter accent in a salad, much like arugula.

Several standard brassicas do well in Northwest winters: Kales, both the Siberian Curled and the flat-leaved Hanover varieties, as well as the usual long-standing Brussels Sprouts and January King cabbages. One surprise is the extreme hardiness of Collards, despite its more Southern heritage. The soft, green leaves can be de-stemmed, rolled up, and then finely chopped into a chiffonade of wispy curls to be added at the last minute to hot stews or soups.

At my neighbor Jan Hersey’s garden, the Red Russian Kale, with its oak leaf style foliage, offers a wealth of purple-yellowish buds that are great for steaming or stir-fries, or eaten fresh an in-garden spring tonic.


Jan also discovered a large clump of overwintered scallions, of unknown origin, almost the size of small leeks. Perhaps they are related to hardy Japanese scallions, which I have grown in the past, but not to such great size this late in spring. The mystery scallions may have survived the cold and wind since her garden is down in a protected dell, surrounded by tall trees. An overwintered surprise, perfect for a fresh spring salsa or a Thai-style dipping sauce.


As a last allium roundup from my winter pantry stores, I made a large pot of vegetable soup stock (to be frozen), starting with a bunch of the fresh scallions, then adding the last of my stored Alyssa Craig sweet onions, as well as peeled cloves from the bags of stored garlic heads that are beginning to soften and sprout, plus a handful of fresh bay leaves and some black peppercorns. I also processed a purée of garlic, olive oil, and sea salt to be stored in small jars, either in the freezer, or alternatively in the fridge where the purée will keep up to a year. In both the frozen and fridge versions the jars should have a thin top layer of oil to keep out any air. The refrigerated garlic mash will slowly lose its bite and turn slightly sweet, but a spoonful is a useful quick addition to stir-fries or soups.


Both versions of preserved garlic will bridge the short gap between the last of the stored garlic bulbs in the pantry and the garlic scapes that will soon appear on this year’s crop in May, before the first fresh bulbs arrive in late June or early July. Garlic forever.


Container Gardening

 As part of my adaptation to the four-score stage of life, I am downsizing my commitment to the large, main vegetable garden at some distance from my house, and expanding my home kitchen garden. I overwintered pots containing chives, garlic chives, curly and flat parsley, as well as olive leaf arugula, having made sure they all were covered by row cloths as well as tarps during the winter cold snap. The one layer of snow that appeared briefly also helped to insulate the plants under the heavy covers.


I am now transplanting nursery starts into old recycling bins, extra-large nursery pots for holding small trees, as well as a recycled hard rubber watering trough. Starts include Bibb and Romaine lettuces, Cilantro, and Radicchio, as well as replacements for the Rosemary which did not survive the cold. I also put starts of Snow Peas into a small bed protected by a tall fence of chicken wire and tomato cages, in hopes that the resident deer will nibble on something else. If need be, I will wrap the whole stand of peas in floating row cloth to prevent the herbivores from dining on my favorite spring edible.


My pots of marjoram, winter savory, sage, and several varieties of mint made it through the winter, along with the white-flowering Greek oregano that has taken root for many years in a gravel bed near my driveway. I will add a fresh crop of Italian and Curly parsley later on, as well as dill and tarragon, to round out my at-hand supply of basic herbs. I also have a small Bay Laurel tree that survives, very root-bound, in a medium-sized pot. It definitely needs to be transplanted in the fall.


Greenhouse Changes


Since I still have a freezer full of tomatoes and roasted peppers from last year, I am reducing those two main greenhouse crops this year, growing a few plants mostly for fresh use. I will also do cucumbers in the greenhouse, grown vertically on trellises, particularly the long English (Armenian) cukes that are ideal for salads.


I also do basil in the greenhouse, to have it available early on for the first ripe tomatoes, as well as all season long for pesto. For a continual harvest of basil, especially in the heat of the greenhouse, it is important to constantly snip off any buds and the 2-3 laterally connected side leaves, as well as any white flowers, to keep the basil from dying back prematurely. Harvest basil often. To preserve any surplus, beyond the usual pesto, fresh-picked leaves can be frozen dry in freezer bags and then tossed into salad dressing or sauces. Basil leaves can also be blended with garlic, salt, and olive oil and frozen in jars. The frozen basil mix can be added as a “pistou” sauce to Italian-style soups, or reblended with parmesan and walnuts (a substitute for pine nuts) for making pesto later on. Basil forever.


One outdoor crop I will maintain at the large garden is bulb fennel, which I like fresh, the bulbs sliced for dipping in an olive oil-anchovy sauce as an appetizer or quartered and pan-roasted. The fronds can be used in salads or as an alternative to dill weed for baked or grilled salmon.


A new experiment in the greenhouse will be sweet potatoes, which are technically not tubers but rather swollen roots from vines. They will be a challenge even if our summers are getting warmer. To produce starts, or ‘slips’, the roots are held up by toothpicks and suspended in half-filled jars of water. The important thing is to have the stem end up above the top of the jar, and the other end with ‘eyes’ in the water. Hopefully, there will be side sprouts appearing after 6-8 weeks. According to the many YouTube videos, the slips are then carefully picked off, and put into a second set of water jars until they develop roots. The slips then are transplanted into small pots to grow out a bit. Finally, once truly warm weather arrives, the slips will be transplanted into the greenhouse.


I bought organic sweet potatoes to avoid any hormone spray applied to prevent sprouting in storage, and used non-chlorinated water in the jars. One hurdle will be that, once harvested, they require curing in a hot, moist greenhouse to change the starch to sugar. That may be difficult in our cool fall weather. We shall see what happens, but I am dreaming of homegrown yams by Thanksgiving.


Peter Heffelfinger

66 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Apr 14

What a wealth of information and inspiration, Peter! Thank you. One takeaway for me is to pay attention to the varieties that overwinter well, if that’s a goal. In addition to eating, these will be good candidates for seed saving, due to their hardiness. We’re doing exactly that by letting the flat-leafed Hanover kale that over wintered go to seed and saving the seed for Fidalgo Seed Share distribution. I found its flavor sweeter than the Red Russian and texture more palatable.

I should point out that the voluptuous scallions you pictured from my garden grew that way in a well-amended raised bed, not in the grow bag pictured. They were moved from the bed to make room for spring…

bottom of page