I came up with the idea of a winter vegetable garden while nosing about in the old barn where my father had dumped a random assortment of junk, including a box of books from which I’d gradually been extracting all of the most interesting delicacies. I had figured it was time to pack up the rest to donate to the library when I came across a little paperback at the bottom entitled WINTER GARDENING IN THE MARITIME NORTHWEST: COOL SEASON CROPS FOR THE YEAR-ROUND GARDENER by Binda Colebrook (Rev. ed. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1998). I read it over the period of a few days and was inspired.
To date, I had always associated ‘winter’ and ‘garden’ with a drab mess of slimy plants moldering in the garden by about the beginning of October. At that point, I would quit weeding and more or less give up hope. But this book bespoke confidently of the possibility of tasty greens, crispy kales, and tangy beets. It even sounded remotely…cozy: growing and then picking greens in the dead of winter to feed the family fresh salads. Determined to do it right, I took the rare step of planning my purchases in considerable detail and – not to skimp on just any seeds – I went to an online seed vendor (Nichols Garden Nursery in Salem OR - a most excellent choice for price, selection, and timeliness) and purchased one package each of the following:
CABBAGE – EARLY JERSEY WAKFIELD Heirloom
CORN SALAD – MACHOLONG
KALE – RED RUSSIAN Heirloom
ONION – EVERGREEN HARDY WHITE BUNCHING
RADISH – RELISH CROSS HYBRID
Carefully following the instructions in the book, I then selected the ideal site: a spot protected from north winds, sunny in the morning, and not in a low area where the cool night air might freeze it. The solution was a weedy area in front of the barn-turned-studio where I laid out a simple 10′ x 6′ frame of untreated 2×12′s and added a about a yard of 5-way soil mix and rotted manure from a generous horse owner.
The seeds arrive in the mail around August 20, and I had them in the ground by the second week of September. By October 4, they were up and growing strong – the largest leaves in the photo are the radishes, which got a quick start followed by the kale, corn salad, and beets. In fact, I was rather surprised by the rapid germination, which may have been the result of lingering summer warmth and occasional light rainfall which produced a crop faster than I was able to get in early June (see ‘Yard as Garden’).
This would be a happy tale except that out of the blue, hoofed disaster struck. The goats, with whom I have been fighting a running battle to keep fenced out the yard, escaped as they often do and (sob!) swept through my garden. The biggest and showiest got their attention, leaving me without radish or kale, unless a miracle happens and these tender annuals can regrow their missing leaves. Apparently goats have a knack for nibbling the tops of things without the tearing motion used by horses and cows that would otherwise uproot the entire plant. Thus, a goat-grazed plant usually retains a skeletal frame of stems without any leaves. Of course, there is always reseeding and the hope of another quick germination before the frost. That same day, they also razed my new Virginia creeper in a gallon pot, again taking only the leaves. The warnings of a poison ivy -like rash were unheeded by the goats, who survived with no apparent ill effects.
In the aftermath of my loss, I spent the better part of a day and a half repairing the fences necessary to contain the hoofed menaces, but for now must face the startling gaps in my winter garden.
My next challenge will be the frost, which will be coming soon I think. Saturday night was clear and a cold 38 degrees. Realizing the challenge to my carpentry skills, I’m procrastinating for a while before constructing a cold frame of wood and plastic. In the meantime, I’m keeping the goats occupied consuming blackberry leaves and their most favorite food, Douglas fir branches.