Winter Gardening with Lucie Desjarlais

[important]From the 2008-02 Newsletter[/important]

A large head of purple veined cabbage protruding from the snow, a light dusting of snow on the leavesWinter gardening is both a passion and a challenge. It is also part of the future of food for us in the Comox Valley as we shift to local sustainably grown crops. Nothing, nothing can compare to picking greens from the garden minutes before being eating the raw salad. Not only vitamins are preserved, but all those phytonutrients – which fight dreaded degenerative diseases – are available to us in their full power.

Here in a nutshell is my experience so far with “winter gardening”, which should be renamed “winter harvesting” as there ain’t much work from November to March.


The most difficult part for me. My setting is the front and back yard of a regular city lot. A few beds here and there, a small greenhouse, and a main vegetable garden, fenced from the dogs. As soon as Spring warms the soil, I catch the “garden frenzy” familiar to our lot, and start seeds indoors, and some in the greenhouse. The problem starts here, as my need for greenhouse footage increases with the number of seedling flats. You see, early spring is when my greenhouse is finally being generous, with the less winter-hardy leafy greens exploding under the lengthening days. I finally enjoy lettuce leaves more than once a week, so I’m not in a rush to pull it out to make room for the seedling flats. A fine balance, and a lot of crowding, with barely enough room to tippytoe around.

The next challenge happens in the garden, during the heat of the summer, as I look for “empty” spots to plant some winter veggies. Many can be started in pots, but the root vegetables prefer direct sowing, and I usually have used up every corner possible for summer crops. If there is a half row somewhere, I have to evaluate the amount of sunshine it receives, as plants in July are usually tall, and shade their surroundings. Winter root vegetables planted in early July would be fine, except in the case of being shaded by beans and broccoli, not ready until late August… Adding to this challenge is the fact that I try to collect seeds as much as I can, meaning tall plants maturing seeds until late September. Again, strict planning or dig up another bed quick.

My last planning exercise is the timing between the final harvest of my heat-loving peppers, residing in the greenhouse, and trying to hold in pots as long as possible all the greens that will move into the greenhouse, around mid-October. These greens need to be of almost mature size by that time if I want to pick at them all winter long; meaning a couple of repotting sessions to accommodate growing roots until the final transplant into the greenhouse.


The gods are now on our side as many seed companies try to cash in this winter gardening wave. The best ones are local companies with seeds matured in our climate. Most have symbols indicating winter resistant varieties. Several root crops will be quite happy to stay in the ground all winter if we cover them with a thick layer of mulch, such as beets, turnips, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks.

As for leafy greens, start with Siberian Kale, one of the most winter-hardy leafy available. If planted in late spring, it will have a thick bare stalk during the winter, which will fill up with new growth in March to offer almost unlimited supply of leaves and tender seed stalks (also called Spring candy). Kale planted at the end of summer won’t have the root system to support such growth, but will provide you with quite a few new leaves. Kale tastes MUCH BETTER in winter, so don’t toss it off your list just yet. And if you get addicted to winterized kale leaves, note that during December and January, there ain’t much to pick, unless you have several plants, or you have some protection promoting growth, such as cloche or greenhouse.

Make sure you try arugula, which might survive an easy winter without protection. (I am eating as we speak a big, delicious arugula salad, picked from the greenhouse, after 2 nights of -7 C, but my unprotected plants are looking too limp or still frozen to eat at the moment.) Spinach will probably rot from too much rain, so give it protection, and in February, it will start to reimburse your efforts. Several varieties of lettuce will also withstand frosty periods, with some cover. Curly parsley is worth keeping, as the summer bounty will taper off to a few offerings of fresh parsley thorough the winter. (Refer to the May 2006 Seed to Seed newsletter, cover article on Salvestrols and cancer prevention for a reason to chew on parsley and other fresh greens). Quite a few of the Asian greens in the Brassica family are good candidates for winter harvesting, some able to withstand the elements without protection. Some Swiss chard varieties don’t mind winter as well.

Finally, there are Spring treasures that come a long time before your first harvest of March-planted baby greens. Purple sprouting broccoli is a big plant worthy of every square inch of land it holds since being sown in late May. Some perennials provide fresh taste and greenery as early as mid-February, such as French sorrel, bulbing onion varieties such as Fran’s Perpetual, and wild onions.


Mulch is what every winter-harvested plant needs, but not nitrogen-rich (as this would promote quick, spindly growth which cannot withstand frosts). The very best mulch is straw, as it resists compaction from the couple of feet of snow we sometimes get, often at the onset of winter. Remember that compacted mulch won’t protect the root zone from frost as it should. Next on the list are shredded dead leaves, readily available at this time, but make sure you don’t compact them, and please, put a few inches thick, not just one inch, around the crown of each plant. Shredded newspaper can also do, and can be added on top of compacted mulch in mid-winter.

A greenhouse, or a cloche, will go a long way in encouraging some growth, even in the darkest months. Keep in mind this simple fact: the bigger the cubic volume of your protected space, the greater the buffer effect (this also works for summer: a bigger greenhouse won’t overheat as much). Nevertheless, make use of garden buckets, cardboard boxes, etc. and cover your most important bare plants during cold snaps. And don’t worry if you lose some plants, the strongest ones will survive, or if not, the learning will be applied next winter.

Each of us has to build our own experience, with our own favourite varieties, in our own garden setting. Forbidden Plateau Road residents won’t get the same results as Lazo Road dwellers, but something can be grown in each situation with not too much work and some practice. The pride that comes with winter harvesting is quite unique. Give it a try, it’s DELICIOUS!

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