The Garden Survives a Record-Breaking January
There’s a saying out there that all gardeners are optimists; if that’s true, then winter gardeners are down-right Pollyannaish. Truly, how can I be anything but an optimistic soul after seeing how well my garden has come through this record-breaking winter?! Again, I’m using no greenhouse, no heat, no expensive structures… just low tunnels (waist-high hoops covered with fabric or clear plastic) and cold-hardy plants.
According to our closest National Weather Service office in Jackson, Kentucky, we’ve set a record for the number of times that temperatures have fallen to 0° F (-18 ° C) or below in the month of January (and we’re already tied with another year for the entire winter!). Our average temperature for the month of January was a chilly 28° F (-2 ° C), and the lowest temperature recorded was -7 F (-22 ° C; my garden’s “unofficial” outdoor thermometer hit -8 F). Granted, we still have 48 more days of winter to go through, but considering that our winter’s coldest temperatures have historically happened in January, I’ve got my fingers crossed that the worst of winter is over.
Thankfully, the extreme cold has been punctuated with moments of warmth, allowing me the opportunity to access the low tunnels and HARVEST! And as you can see in these pictures, these aren’t vegetables that have marginally survived the depths of winter, with frost-burned tips and half-rotted stems… these are vegetables that have become even more beautiful with the cold! The Red Russian kale, which typically has a green leaf with purple veins when grown in warmer weather, has turned almost completely violet with these colder temperatures and shorter days. In fact, all of the greens appear to have taken on deeper shades. I’m not sure of the exact mechanism for this change in color, but I wonder if the plants are expressing different pigments that will allow them take better advantage of the lower light availability of mid-winter (similar to the darker hues of plants that prefer growing in shade); whatever it is, it is stunning!
Admittedly, I’m a little stunned myself at how great everything looks to this point. Especially the lettuce — that was a planting I honestly wasn’t optimistic about (as evidence by my undersowing it with crimson clover in case it failed). According to most cold-tolerance tables, lettuce should give up the ghost when temperatures hit 28° F (-2 ° C), but mine is chugging right along under the protection of only 2 layers of AG-30 fabric row cover (I only add the second layer when extreme weather is predicted).
As you know from my previous posts, I am conducting trials of various degrees of low tunnel protection. From these tests, I’ve identified some true champions of extreme winter weather that can grow with minimal protection (in some cases, none at all in my zone, 6b). These plants are not only hardy, but tender and delicious, and will make up the bulk of our winter salad beds in the next winter growing season. Allow me to introduce you to mâche, claytonia, chickweed, and cress:
I’m looking forward to sharing a complete report with you of these low tunnel trials very soon. And in case you’re wondering, I’m hoping to soon post the spring and summer segments of the “One Year – One Ton of Fresh Food” series that I started a few months ago. Please forgive me… this winter has been busy! Until then, stay warm and dream of green winter gardens that you’ll be growing next year!