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Gardening - around the calendar.


It is the 16th of January. A lone Brussels sprout plant stands in the garden, the last of a dozen which I started from seed in August. Russian kale continues to stand tall. Immature onions and carrots are still in the ground, waiting for March, when they'll start growing again.

I am very near a goal I set for myself several years ago: to garden around the calendar.

Granted, we have had an extremely mild winter for our zone 6 climate. Even during the winter of '93-'94, however, the hardest in living memory, my brother harvested Brussels sprouts on Christmas Day. As for the kale, I have brought it into the kitchen frozen solid, and once cooked it was as delicious as ever.

Once upon a time I was a gardener from Memorial Day to Labor Day, warming up a few weeks before and tapering off a few weeks after. Gardening was a summer activity. I canned the wealth of summer produce and enjoyed canned tomatoes, pickles and jams of various kinds, frozen corn and whatever other odds and ends I decided to put by. The key to my conversion to year 'round gardening was a book written by Mike and Nancy Bubel entitled, Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables. Though the Bubels called their book Root Cellaring, they have a chapter dedicated to outlining the vegetables that can be eaten fresh 12 months a year as well as other chapters on how to store vegetables. A generous third of the book is about creating a root cellar with examples of ingenious variety. This is a book that is both philosophical and practical, leading the reader through reflections about goals in gardening and in preserving what we grow.

Gardening with the seasons

If I harvest food from the garden for nine or ten months of the year, then I can reduce the amount of produce that I need to preserve in the summertime. That takes the edge off some of those feverish summer canning sessions. The fun of the garden is increased both by extending a pleasurable activity into more of the year and by putting more relaxation into the gardening I do in the summer. I don't need to keep so many summer vegetables for winter because there will be fresh vegetables come fall and come winter too. That also means fewer canning jars, less gas to fuel the stove, and on and on in its implications for the conservation of resources, not the least of which is time. Gardening for as much of the year as possible requires as much planning as planting. This more than anything else distinguishes year-round gardening from the summer gardening of days gone by. That was a one-season garden, planted once, tended once, harvested once. Year-round gardening is a living process of cultivation in the broadest sense. The garden is no longer a thing to be done (plow, level, plant, weed, water, harvest). It has being and dignity in relation to which the gardener is more servant than master. The service rendered to the garden goes on, season in and season out.

As an example, let us say I want to plant two crops of peas, early and late, sweet corn, leeks, cucumbers, winter squash, kale, turnips and parsnips, among many other things. Peas require 60 days, more or less, and parsnips 120 days, which means that I will have grown two crops of peas with an interlude between the first harvest and the second planting, all in the time it took me to grow one crop of parsnips. Looking at just these two crops indicates how complex is the warp and woof of year-round gardening.

A M J J A S O N D Peas: Plant harvest Plant harvest Parsnips: Plant harvest

There is about a six week hiatus between the last spring peas and planting the first fall peas, not really enough time to fill with any other crop. The solution is to mix and match with other vegetables. Parsnips require a spatial commitment crossing three seasons, and which in fact can encompass four: parsnips can be left in the ground to be dug the following spring.

A year's worth of gardening needs to be mapped early, and with an understanding that what one chooses for this year can have implications for the garden next year and even years after. Spring peas could be followed by leeks. Winter squash could be interplanted with sweet corn or planted to follow early peas. Depending on how the cucumber plants look toward the end of August one could even plant kale or turnips behind them.

In this hypothetical garden I have ignored the issues of what plant best follows another in terms of providing nutrients or inhibiting pests for the successor. The point is that the gardener must see and think ahead as much as a chess player. The expected must be accounted for in advance so that there is sufficient flexibility to accommodate the unexpected (e.g., the failure of the bean seed to germinate requiring an immediate second planting, or the gift of seed for a vegetable you've never tried before.

The other necessity for year-round gardening to be worthwhile is an appreciation for a broad spectrum of foods. My wife and I have enjoyed what--for our generation--has become slightly unusual. And the day may come when our children will revel in a plate of mashed turnips, baked squash and boiled kale (seasoned with nutmeg), but they do not enjoy it now. The proof of the garden--as of the pudding--is in the eating.

Extending the seasons

I am not just interested in year-round gardening, but rather in having fresh produce year 'round. In the first half of February I will start a flat of Boston head lettuce in the cellar with a view to transplanting them in the cold frame sometime in March. I should have fresh lettuce by Easter. Spinach and radishes can go directly into the coldframe early in March, so they too should be ready in April.

Once the garden is fully utilized with respect to the seasons, then the trick is to extend those seasons. That is done, in part, by starting seed indoors or in a greenhouse, and then by making use of cold frames or hot beds. Again, the goal is that something should be growing in the garden, if not actually being harvested, every or nearly every month of the year. There are a variety of simple technologies for extending the seasons.

The cold frame can be used on either end of the main growing season. The one I built is set inside the foundation of a chicken house that has been gone for most of 30 years. I dug out the area, lined it with concrete blocks left over from various construction projects, filled it with soil and then covered it with old windows. It isn't glamorous but it does the job. Row cover (from sawn-off milk jugs to the more commercially oriented frames and plastic sheeting sold by most seed companies and garden suppliers) make more temporary season extenders which are adaptable to more circumstances than the permanent cold frame.

One method of season extension I used last year was to leave the most vigorous tomato plant in the garden, and build walls of straw around it, then covering the straw house with an old window. It may not have provided very good shelter for the three pigs, but it kept vine-ripened tomatoes on my table into November. Because the hot peppers were situated just south of the tomato plant, the straw house also protected the peppers. They yielded nearly as long as the tomato plant.

Someone might argue that at the price of straw, my vegetables were rather expensive. That certainly would have been true had I bought the straw, but I had it on hand. Also, because the bales are still intact, I should be able to use them to shelter an early planting of something this spring. When all else fails they will provide wonderful mulch for the garden. There is a lot to be gotten out of those bales of straw before I can consider them to have been used. Each gardener can develop personal strategies for extending the seasons. My experiences are only meant as examples of what can be done with available materials and a little ingenuity.

Passive storage

Upstairs in the spare bedroom there are dozens of winter squash quietly waiting for us to eat them. I carried them out of the garden last October, left them sheltered on the porch until the threat of freezing weather made it expedient to bring them indoors.

Down in the cellar are boxes of turnips packed in sand, moistened from time to time with the sprinkling can. There are fresh turnip greens growing too, should we decide to use them. The truth is we stored more fresh vegetables than we have been able to eat.

Nancy Bubel makes the point that storing vegetables results from a sensitivity to the rhythms of nature. "The great majority of the vegetables we store for winter are biennials... It's not just our idea, then, to keep these vegetables in good shape until spring. Winter survival is in their genes. We're not outwitting natural laws, but cooperating with them."

Winter squashes are, of course, annuals, but God put something in them too so that they store for such long periods. According to Nancy Bubel the vitamin A content of squashes actually increases in storage. Proper storage can mean better nutrition.

Passive storage of vegetables takes a lot less work than active preservation. Just as significant is that storage offers a much more forgiving time frame than preservation. When kernels of sweet corn are plump with milk, it is time to sharpen the knife and ready the canning kettle or freezer bags. When tomatoes or cucumbers reach that certain stage of ripeness they must be dealt with. A delay means tough, old corn, rotten tomatoes and pithy cucumbers. In the case of turnips and parsnips the danger is in harvesting them too early, before their flavors and sugars have peaked. Winter squash will give you extra weeks (barring a severe freeze) before they absolutely must be harvested.

Like year-round gardening, however, storage requires planning, not only for getting the crops in the ground at the right time, but also planning space to store them. The Bubel's book is unexcelled in helping develop strategies for storage. A gorgeous old root cellar is wonderful, but not essential. In any case, potatoes, squash and onions, as examples, all require different kinds of storage. There is a reason that the squash are upstairs under the bed and that the turnips are downstairs in the cellar.

The benefits of whole gardening

The methodology of gardening including year-round planning, season extension and passive storage in addition to active preservation by canning and freezing is a whole engagement in cultivation. Gardening is no longer an intrusive act but an integration of needs, responses and commitments. This is a living with the Earth rather than exploitative extraction of resources. Once I considered and attempted this whole approach to gardening I realized the extent to which gardening as I had known it (what we might call fractional gardening: 100% of effort concentrated in one-third the available time) was impressed by the goals and flaws of modern production agriculture: maximum one-time outputs won by assault upon the soil.

This whole approach to gardening asks more of me in terms of planning and in a commitment to the rhythms of nature. It also requires far less of me because I do not have to perform (and demand from the garden) impossible tasks in an unreasonable amount of time. This whole engagement increases both food security for my family (because our food supply no longer depends upon the success of one season's work) and my pleasure. Because I am working with my garden year 'round I am constantly improving the soil. Because I am planting crops which are much more forgiving in their schedules I have more time to get done right the garden jobs which must be done in the most timely fashion.

This is only an interim report. The results of the past year have felt like a consummation which is the beginning of something. The difference in the gardening I do now compared to what I did before is as if I walked out of one world into another. The soil is different. The vegetables are different. And I am different.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Countryside Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wilson, Jeffrey
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1995
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