Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter Garden Miracle

It's the middle of February and we've experienced some of the coldest temperatures of the season. The garden should be dead, or at least dormant, right?

Not so.

As I walk around our kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, the signs of life are everywhere. Some of that is new: the rhubarb we planted last year has begun to send up new leaves. They are bright green, nearly flourescent, and crinkly fresh like a newborn these rhubarb leaves. One wonders what on earth the rhubarb plants are trying to prove, sprouting in the middle of winter. Obviously, this is what makes rhubarb a dish we look forward to in the spring.

But much of the greenery I see in the garden now was planted last fall. It has not gone away. Turnips, rutabaga, beets, Swiss chard: all are holding on, even thriving. There are mustard greens as well, and arugula, sorrel and parsley. I would have given them all up as a lost cost months ago, except this morning with the temperature just above freezing I plucked a mustard leaf and it exploded in my mouth with fresh, peppery flavor and a wonderful, icy juiciness. How can this be?

Certain plants not only tolerate cold temperatures but have an incredibly strong will to live. I've noticed these plants actively respond to the weather with their own coping mechanisms. When the temperature drops below freezing, the turnips and rutabagas and beets go supine. Their stems droop and the leaves fall to the ground. They will remain that way as long as the freeze continues. But then, as the temperatures climb, the plants reach for the sun and become erect again. The leaves regain their structure and glossiness. They look good as new.

I notice that the turnips are swelling. The rutabagas, too, but more slowly. Even the lettuces that I thought had expired some time ago appear to have some life in them yet. And the chard are absolute champs. They keep coming back and coming back, although more slowly. I have already harvested them more than once.
I am not alone observing this phenomenon. Each week I look forward to a detailed e-mail from our farmer friend Brett who also provides our winter CSA box. Brett was a pioneer, one of the first in our area, I think, to grow and provide fresh produce throughout the winter. He has spent years breeding winter-hardy arugula and other greens. He seems to love nothing better than suiting up in his Carhartt overalls to pick greens in the depths of winter.

Every once in a while we receive a notice like this in one of Brett's e-mails: As indicated in last week’s email, there will be NO farm delivery this week. The crops need time to recover from the bitter cold of 8 days ago, so I am using this as an off week.

Notice Brett's use of the term "recover," for when the temperatures have been dropping to 14 degrees overnight, the plants do eventually recover and are harvested--even in January and February--for our CSA box. Brett recently wrote that he is beginning to plant fava beans and peas and carrots for harvest in June. In other words, life for the produce farmer continues straight through the winter. This is no time to turn out the lights.

So I am keeping a close eye on our own garden greens. The turnips appear to be ready for another Dark Days meal. Likewise much of the chard has grown large enough for one of our favorite braises. There is plenty of mustard and arugula to add to the salad bowl.

Even in February, the garden soldiers on, and life is good.


Joanna said...

SO interesting .. I'm a fair-weather gardener, downcast by the rabbits and pigeons who wreak the worst havoc in the winter ... but this gives me hope and inspiration in equal measure


Laura said...

Mike and I were just talking about our excitement for winter gardening next year. If you can keep all that going on the East Coast, there's no reason we can't manage it here in the temperate PNW.

BTW, I'm passing on the E for Excellent award to you. Keep inspiring us!

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, I think it really is interesting. In fact, I find the garden completely fascinating and now that I've been working it closely for a few years I wonder why more people don't garden in the winter, or at least favor cold-weather crops, if not a plastic tunnel in their front yard.

Laura, I'm sure your climate in the Northwest is more favorable in winter than ours here in D.C. Try it and give us a report! And thanks so much for including me in your excellence list. You are doing great things at Urban Hennery.

onestraw said...

Those roots look FAB! My own experiments in winter gardening this year are not going as well, but our winter temps are bottoming out about 28 degrees further down the mercury than yours!

But still, I share your amazement -Spinach and mache are still growing, and the pac choi will recover. Simply awe-some.

In hopes of spring transplants were begun this morning for more uber tough annuals like those above.

Thanks for sharing!

Ed Bruske said...

Rob, I've never even tried growing spinach, but I hear so many glowing comments about it, maybe I should.