The Winter Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted November 23, 2022

With the advent of cold weather, the winter garden comes into its own.

Broccoli

Broccoli, Romanesco cauliflower, red and green cabbages, as well as Brussels sprouts, emerged a month ago from their summertime tunnel of floating row cover and have formed mature heads. An Italian variety of leaf broccoli, Spigariello Liscia, now a 4-foot tall bush resembling broccoli Raab, was also under row cover during the summer. I uncovered the Liscia along with the other brassicas, but the slender leaves at the top were slightly nipped by the recent cold, so it went back under its white fabric.

Romanesco and peppers

The semi-hardy Mizuna Japanese mustard, the fall turnip greens, as well as the White Icicle radishes, have been picked steadily for the past month; they now need covering as well against the nighttime temperatures hovering around 32F. Nearby, the slow-growing but very hardy mache is just beginning to spread, perhaps planted a bit late, but it will slowly expand during the warm spells.

Spigariello Liscia

For a successful winter garden, you have to plant the brassica starts in mid-summer, and protect them from the start with a secure row cover against the endemic cabbage root maggot fly and the fluttering, white cabbage butterflies. A few butterflies managed to sneak inside the cover this season, but given the large number of plants in a wide row 40 feet long the overall damage was limited.

With the extended summer drought I had to water heavily every 2-3 days to keep the plants thriving and to prevent bolting. In the closed, moist environment under the row cover, however, the potato bugs and the small grey slugs proliferated, but affected mostly the lower, ground-level foliage. As the intense summer growing season extended into early fall, the brassicas grew immense, tropical-sized leaves before maturing. Fortunately the garden relies on an artesian well drawing from the south side of the Mt.Erie/Whistle Lake drainage.

Semi-hardy Greens

The semi-hardy leafy greens need to be planted starting in mid-to-late August and into early September to attain a productive level of maturity before the cool weather sets in. With row cover protection, they grow slowly through the winter, offering a steady supply of leaves and roots. Essentially, the garden never really sleeps; you have tender greens all winter long in spite of the cold temperatures.

Other more hardy leafy crops include Winter Bloomsdale Spinach, which will survive handily even exposed to the snow, as well as Tah Tsai Tatsoi, an Oriental mustard that grows in a tight crown low to the soil. The fully hardy kales and collards also stand up to the cold on their own, and in very early spring form edible buds when not much else is producing in the garden.

Leeks

I rely on a bed of leeks for a steady winter supply of fresh alliums. This year the leeks were hit by orange rust during our extended warm spell in early autumn, but I kept removing the outer, more affected leaves to slow down the spread of the spores. The recent cold, which finally eliminated any lingering red fungal spots, is another advantage of winter gardening: less disease, particularly fungi, as well as fewer insects. Aphids, however, will always be a problem, emerging in winter warm spells to infest the tender growing tips of Brussels sprouts and other brassicas. Remove aphids quickly using a mild detergent spray before they spread to new spring seedlings.

Winter Cover Crops

The first cover crop, a mix of annual rye, clover, and Alaska peas, was sown in mid-September; it also needed lots of watering to sprout during the fall dry spell. Another late cover crop was sown in mid-November inside the hoop house, once the tomato, cucumber and pepper plants were removed. With the cold nights but relatively warm sunny days, the plastic cover will stay in place just long enough to sprout the rye. Once the cover crop is up, the plastic cover will be removed to expose the crop to the winter rain. It’s the hoop house’s final extension of the fall planting season.

cover crop

The Hoop House

Built in 2014 with heavy duty, nursery quality plastic, the hoop house cover has lasted at least 8 years, which was well worth the added investment. It is securely held in place by horizontal panels of wiggle-wire at the mid-point of the arched hoops along each side; exterior carpenter clamps as needed during windy days; and two 40-foot long plastic pipes on the bottom side edges that can be secured to the ground at night, and easily rolled up for ventilation during the day. The ends and doors are opened up during the day and closed at night to keep in the warmth. The plastic is removed in the winter to prevent storm damage and deterioration from exposure to UV light.

Overall, the plastic-covered hoop house is a relatively recent innovation that enables Northwest maritime gardeners to reliably ripen tomatoes, all kinds of sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, as well as bumper crops of cukes. The hoop house protection enables slow-ripening peppers to be harvested late into October. The sweet peppers were roasted and then frozen in small packets, while most of the hot peppers were dried. The habaneros were made into a Louisiana-style hot sauce, kept in the fridge for immediate use. I’ve tried to grow melons several times, but not successfully; I leave them to the farmers’ market growers who are further inland and away from the cool evening onshore mists that roll in during the summers on Fidalgo Island.

Dehydration

After several years of using a small, simple dehydrator for cherry tomatoes, this fall I borrowed a large, ten-tray dehydrator with a fan, temperature control, and a timer. I was able to easily process 40 lb. boxes of pears and apples, all the varieties of hot peppers from the hoop house, as well as several trays of Juliet cherry tomatoes, a large, oval variety that dries well. I also tried other varieties of cherry tomatoes. Principe de Borghese, an Italian heirloom cherry tomato for sun-drying in warmer climes, produced much smaller and less abundant fruit. Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes were moderately sweet, but too small to dry. They do have firm skins that don’t split open when fully ripe, as is common with the popular Sungold and Sweet 100’s, and combine well with tomatillos for salsas and chili verde soup.

Juliet cherry tomatoes

Dried juliets

Dehydration preserves large amounts of fruit quickly without cooking, canning, or freezing. The Bartlett pears didn’t come out quite like the chewy commercial ones, but they were still very sweet, as were the dried apples. The dried cherry tomatoes will thicken up sauces and soups made later on from the already frozen quarts of regular tomatoes; the dried hot peppers will be ground as needed, or added whole to recipes. Overall, it was an efficient way of dealing with the cascade of fresh fruits in the fall. Plus, the freezer was already full. Note: turn the fruit over half way through to ensure even drying and put a few grains of rice in the bottom of each storage jar as a protective desiccant.

Ripened pears before slicing onto trays

Plums Next Year

Years ago as part of an oral history project, I interviewed Rosa Walrath, who had grown up on a San Juan Island Italian plum/prune farm back in the early days when the island orchards were the main source of fruit for Seattle. Her job as a child was tending the prunes on screens in the drying barns, turning them over for even drying and discarding the moldy ones. At the time, I was water bath canning jars of local Italian plums on a kitchen wood stove in an off the grid cabin; the plums turned out well, along with jars of peaches, apricots, and applesauce. Inspired by her story, I tried drying local Italian plums on screens over a small wood parlor stove, but with no success since it wasn’t consistently hot enough.

This year the plums are long gone, but I look forward to doing prunes next year in the automatic electric dehydrator that sits on the kitchen table, humming to itself and blinking off the extended hours. You do still have to turn the fruit by hand, though.

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Peter Heffelfinger

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