How to Garden in January

It’s the middle of January, the dead of winter. Today the clouds are heavy and grey with snow. Last week was bookended by two snowstorms and this week more snow’s in the forecast. I love winter. I love the quiet, the blue sky and ocean framed by white snow and clouds. I love skiing and skating and long, slow afternoons sitting and reading or knitting in front of my woodstove or listening to records while staring out the window. Winter is such an inner time—indoor activities, inner thoughts. And yet my thoughts keep turning outdoors to gardening and farming.

A lot of people put their gardens to bed for winter in the fall. But this year I wanted to give four-seasons gardening a try. I’ve discovered, with a bit of planning and know-how, that you can get fresh veggies from the garden year round.

Last week, during a melt and thaw, I harvested veggies from my garden—kale, Brussels sprouts, and a coupla carrots. I made a big kale salad and roasted pork chops from Thyme for Ewe farm. It was a celebration of the food, a little party in the middle of a winter week, just Julien and me and our garden-fresh vegetables. In January!

This past garden season I didn’t really have any goals. I knew I wanted to expand my garden (dig up a coupla new plots) and plant some fruit trees and bushes. But I also wanted to try some season extending and got Niki Jabbour’s fantastic book The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener. Two things happened because of this book: 1) I increased my garden’s yield and 2) I extended my growing season. For months we haven’t bought any produce from the grocery store (except potatoes). Which means eating a lot of pumpkins and squash—and finding new ways to eat pumpkin and squash.

Harvesting veggies from a winter garden takes a bit of planning—essentially, gardening in January really means doing the bulk of the gardening before January. It’s not like I was able to put seeds in the ground in November and get kale in January. It means planting the right veggies at the right time. It means paying attention to maturity dates and hours of sunlight. ‘Cause after 10 hours of sunlight, stuff stops growing. Here’s a list of things I had to do:

1) Plant the right veggies. That means cold-hardy and cold-tolerant veggies. I’m not harvesting tomatoes right now. Winter is all about kale. And kale cousins (the brassica family). I also planted new veggies I’ve never tried—mâche, mizuna, claytonia (care of Annapolis Seeds). Plus root veggies (carrots, beets). Some herbs, like parsley, are cold-hardy, too.

2) Plant cold-hardy veggies at the right time. A lot of the kale I have out in the garden I planted in the spring and summer—then I just left it out there, either covered up or totally exposed (seriously—nothing seems to kill kale). Those Brussels sprouts I harvested? I planted in late spring (seeded indoor: 15.04.18; planted out: 15.06.23). Same with the carrots. I also planted the mizuna, etc., in late summer/early fall, so it’d have a chance to start growing before we went below 10 hours of sunlight (note: nothing’s actually growing right now—it’s just sitting in stasis waiting to grow once the sunlight increases). The mizuna, etc., is in a plot I’ve been calling my “spring hunger gap patch”—my hope is once the sunlight increases it’ll start growing again in time for a late winter/early spring harvest—that time of year when almost all my storage and freezer crops have been eaten and I usually have to wait till April or May for fresh veggies. Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait till April or May.

3) Pay careful attention to “mature by” dates on seed packages and know when your first frost date is for your region. Niki Jabbour goes into this in a lot more detail, but basically you gotta time your late summer plantings for fall/winter harvests with the date the plant is expected to mature. So, say you wanna plant some spinach. If the maturity date is 45 days, then count back from your first expected frost date (and add a week or 2 just in case). Since I live in Hardiness Zone 5b/6a (map) my first frost date is usually around October 15-31 (proximity to the ocean usually gives us a later frost date—our first light frost was 15.10.19—didn’t get a really hard frost till November). So, for an Oct. 15 harvest, I shoulda planted my spinach seeds around the first week of September or the last week of August.

This part takes a lot of planning and it’s tough to get it exact ‘cause there’s so many things that can affect the growth of a plant. My mizuna, etc. patch became the “spring hunger gap patch” ‘cause I planted those veggies really late (on October 4). But, luckily I already had a lot of kale in the garden.

4) Cover your veggies to keep them “warm.” There’s lots of ways you can cover your plots for winter: cold frames, row cover, low or mini hoop tunnels made of plastic, straw bales, or a straw/leaves mulch (again, check out Jabbour’s book for more details on covering your crops). I opted for mini hoop tunnels and straw mulch. I used some leftover plastic I had from a mattress I got when I moved into my house four years ago, then I covered the edges with straw. I also covered my carrots with straw. Because the plants are cold-hardy, you’re not really trying to make sure they don’t freeze—you’re just protecting them from the elements. Also, once it snows, snow acts as an insulator. I’ve been making sure I dig out my tunnels after each snow as I want the sun to warm and eventually grow the veggies. If you’re not gonna eat the veggies till spring, you can keep the tunnels buried in snow until spring.

Fun story: I’m always trying to keep my costs super low when it comes to gardening. So, on the lookout this fall for straw, I put an ad on Kijiji after Hallowe’en asking for people’s straw bale “decorations.” I got a few phone calls—and quite a few free straw bales in the process!

5) Harvest your veggies at the right time of day. This is a tip from Niki Jabbour—between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. is the best time to harvest winter veggies as they have time to defrost, slowly, outside. Harvesting earlier or later means a much faster, indoor defrost which also means mushy greens. I didn’t know about this when I harvested my Brussels sprouts last week but thankfully I harvested them sometime in the afternoon. Although, I don’t think this would happen with kale ‘cause, nothing kills kale.

***

I moved to Cape Breton in January four years ago and I remember going to the Superstore in Sydney River to get groceries, looking at the selection of veggies and thinking, I’m gonna get scurvy! The selection was pathetic—sad wilted greens, bruised eggplants, tasteless, white tomatoes--everything from California or Mexico or South America. “We’re at the end of the line,” a friend’s dad said recently about our groceries. “It’s like they forget about us.” And now vegetable and fruit prices are skyrocketing, thanks to our shitty dollar. When it’s dark and snowy out, it’s so important to eat well, but, especially in Cape Breton, it seems so difficult.

Flash forward four years and I’m pulling fresh veggies outta my garden in January. I like to imagine Cape Bretoners and others turning their backs on grocery stores, saving money, and eating well. With time and planning, soil and seeds, it’s entirely possible.

***

ETA: I also found some cold-weather gardening advice, plus plans for building a really great cold frame/raised bed, on Community Forests International's website. CFI is doing GREAT work in what is one of the epicentres for organic gardening in the Maritimes: Sackville, New Brunswick.

Special thanks to Leonard Vassallo of Blue Heron Farm, who first introduced me to the idea of season extension and four-seasons gardening.