By Peter Heffelfinger
Posted March 15, 2021
After a winter of being cooped up during the pandemic, I’m sure gardeners are anxious to get started growing things once again. Before jumping into spring planting, I thought I’d start this year’s edition of weekly updates with a look back over what survived this past winter. Spring will arrive soon enough, if not already here.
The heavy foot of snow that fell on South Fidalgo in February served as a layer of insulation, protected the ground from freezing very deeply and kept the hardy over-wintering plants from exposure to wind. With the rapid melt of the snowfall, and the change to warm and dry weather in early March, we’re experiencing a much earlier spring, as has been happening more and more the past few years.
Basic to any system of year-round gardening are vegetables that reappear on their own each spring. Although they may initially take up to several years to reach full production, they’re certainly worth the time and effort. The main concern is finding a permanent place in the garden, safely removed from any ongoing system of crop rotation. Once established, perennials take a minimum of care, mostly a little regular weeding, some watering in summer, and regular pruning or cleanup as needed. A layer of well-cured manure or other form of fertilizer applied in the fall serves a source of slow-release nutrition. The appearance each year of a reliable crop is a welcome relief from the usual spring rush to get seeds or transplants in the ground.
Rhubarb will supply a few leaves the first year, depending on the size of the start, particularly if you are able to find a mature root ball divided from a well-established bed. I found a large rhubarb root at the very first Transition Seed Swap years ago. It is still producing and has filled out a small bed of its own in a corner of the garden, right next to a permanent stand of thornless blackberries. Note: rhubarb leaves get gradually smaller and thinner after 4-5 years and the root needs to be sub-divided to maintain vigorous growth. Rhubarb is one of the earliest crops to be harvested, with the appearance of the bright red stalks serving as a spring tonic visually, as well as for their tart taste, which mixes well with the standard local perennial, strawberries. I am always amazed at the elephantine leaves bursting out of the ground. If large skunk cabbage leaves are a first sign of spring in the woodlands, then rhubarb is the starting flag for the garden.
Artichoke plants will offer an edible head or two the first year, but will start to take off the following season, once the roots are well-established. The key is to harvest the buds when they are tender, before the outer leaves get stiff, since these plants are an edible form of thistles. If you do allow a bud to open up, the flower is a deep blue, and a boon to bees. The fully mature blossom, cut with a long stem and hung upside down to dry, also becomes a distinctive dried flower. I always think of artichokes as welcome visitors to our cool coastal clime from the sunny and warm Mediterranean.
During that week of 20F-degree weather in February of this year, I took the added precaution of putting a temporary covering of floating row cover over the still-standing stalks of artichokes, mostly as a barrier against the wind. They seem to have survived so far, particularly the purple variety Violetta de Provence, which is more susceptible to cold than the standard Green Globe, the variety commonly available locally. The Violetta has smaller, more conical heads, but a much finer taste and more tender leaves.
Of all the typical perennial vegetables, asparagus takes the longest to develop a good harvest, usually reaching that stage in the third year as the roots mature. But, to compensate for the long wait, the taste of the fresh-cut spears is extraordinarily sweet in comparison to the commercial bunches that have been shipped in from elsewhere. Resist the temptation to cut more than a few stalks the first two years and make sure the plot has a good supply of manure and compost, especially over the winter. I grow mostly a standard green variety; the purple type has not done as well so far.
Like artichokes, fresh asparagus is one of those vegetables that is a particular luxury. Maybe it is because they both are enjoyed with lots of melted butter. My asparagus bed is entering its fourth year and I am anticipating a steady supply. Finally, do let a good number of late-appearing stalks leaf to bushy maturity during the summer. The vegetation is needed to continue the cycle, allowing the roots to develop next year’s crop.
Cooking Note: if a few stalks do get too large and the bottom parts get a bit woody, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick lower skin. The white inner pith will still be soft and edible, but just not that distinctive bright green of the more delicate upper spears.
A roundup of Over-wintering Hardy Vegetables
The January King cabbages offered small but tasty heads all winter, and are now sending up fresh side-sprouts from the cut stalks left in the ground. Two large collard plants did well all winter, sporting large healthy leaves seemingly impervious to frost. A sure sign of spring, the lacinato kale plants, like most hardy brassicas, are putting out multiple florets, an early version of broccoli. Keep the top-most buds trimmed off; they’ll be a steady supply of greens for fresh stir-fries. Other plants that did well included Mizuna and Purple mustard, Tat Tsoi bok choy, broccoli Raab, as well as Miner’s lettuce and a bushy form of arugula. Hiding under the leaves for a spring treat were Purple Top turnips, the roots unaffected by frost.
The brussels sprouts, however, suffered from the lack of winter cold, developing brown mold on the lower buds early on, and colonies of aphids on the topmost growing tips during any warm spell. What used to be a reliable crop now seems to be an extended challenge. I can understand a quote from a local farmer saying they are difficult to grow. Makes one appreciate the vast acres of purple and green brussels sprouts that are harvested in the valley just before Thanksgiving. Commercial sprouts would likely be non-organically grown, and unsweetened as yet by any touch of serious frost. I may stick to hardy cabbages as a more reliable winter brassica.
Leeks are the standard fresh allium in the winter garden. The main plot of leeks was harvested regularly, while two small beds of late-summer planted leeks are just now coming to maturity in March. The last of the leeks will develop a hard pith in the center as the temperature warms up, but the outer sheaths are still edible. As the green sprouts of the regular chives and garlic chives emerge in their pots in the kitchen garden, the fresh onion cycle begins again.