The Garden Survives a Record-Breaking January

By  |  27 Comments

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.

From bottom left, Danvers 126 carrots, Violet de Gournay radish, Golden Globe Turnips, Black Spanish radish, harvested January 20, 2014.

From bottom left, Danvers 126 carrots, Violet de Gournay radish, Golden Globe Turnips, Black Spanish radish, harvested January 20, 2014 (photographed the next day).

An assortment of winter greens harvested on January 20, 2014: Asian greens, chard, kale, and even lettuce!

An assortment of winter greens harvested on January 20, 2014: Asian greens, chard, kale, and even lettuce!

 

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!

These Red Russian and Rainbow Lacinato kale have survived a frigid winter under the protection of AG-30 fabric row cover... what beautiful colors!

These Red Russian and Rainbow Lacinato kale have survived a frigid winter under the protection of AG-30 fabric row cover… what beautiful colors!

An assortment of mustard greens harvested on January 26th that are destined for one mother of a fermentation -- a mustard spin on kimchi.

An assortment of mustard greens (Japanese Giant Red, Chinese Curled, Mizuna, Tatsoi) harvested on January 26th that are destined for one mother of a fermentation — a mustard spin on kimchi.

The real proof of surviving a freeze is in the stem. Here, there is no splitting or discoloration, even after 3 incidences of sub-zero (F) temperatures (ambient).

The real proof of surviving a freeze is in the stem. Here, there is no splitting or discoloration in these Pak Choy, even after 3 incidences of sub-zero (F) temperatures (ambient).

 

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).

The lettuce bed under sown with crimson clover. I selectively mow the clover with shears whenever it appears to be competing with the lettuce, but so far they've lived in a happy coexistence (I cut a few leaves from each lettuce plant each week, which collectively produce a great salad mix).

The lettuce bed under-sown with crimson clover. I selectively mow the clover with shears whenever it appears to be competing with the lettuce, but so far they’ve lived in a happy coexistence (I cut a few leaves from each lettuce plant each week, which collectively produce a great salad mix).

This photo-shoot was cut short when I realized that my lettuce leaves were freezing! Harvested January 20, just before the snow and deep freeze arrived.

This photo-shoot was cut short when I realized that my lettuce leaves were freezing! Harvested January 20, just before the snow and deep freeze arrived.

 

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:

Our winter salads are primarily composed of mâche, followed by chickweed, claytonia, and just a few accents of cress (the latter is a bit peppery, so we use it sparingly).

Our winter salads are primarily composed of mâche, followed by chickweed, claytonia, and just a few accents of cress (the latter is a bit peppery, so we use it sparingly).

 

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!

The garden enjoying a brief respite from freezing temperatures on January 20, 2014.

The garden enjoying a brief respite from freezing temperatures on January 20, 2014.

The garden the next day, on January 21, 2014. The garden is starting to get used to this up-and-down rhythm to 2014's winter.

The garden the next day, on January 21, 2014. The garden is starting to get used to this up-and-down rhythm to 2014’s winter.

IMG_6502

27 Comments

  1. Peggy

    February 1, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    What a sight! I don’t think I’ve ever been brave enough to garden through the winter – I can’t even get the spring and summer months right =)

    • AM

      February 20, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      When our 2 feet of snow finally melted yesterday in the mountains, we discovered a “mine field” of mole holes! Do you have a problem with moles, and if so how do you deal with them without chemicals in your veggie garden?

      • Ma Hubbard

        February 21, 2014 at 7:23 am

        We have yet to have trouble with moles or voles. Eliot Coleman has a plan for humane box traps in his books (and I believe the plans can be found with a Google search). Good luck!

  2. Sandy

    February 2, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    I am amazed at what your growing under tunnels! I see you have bee hives as well!

  3. Pingback: Exciting Updates! | Sustainable Kentucky

  4. Emmy

    February 13, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Are those bee hives??? Please explain how you keep one?!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      Hi Emmy. Yes, they are honeybee hives. I’ll have a post in the future, but there is a lot of publicly available information on beekeeping in the U.S. in the meantime.

    • AJ

      February 13, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      Emmy please check out GardenFork on youtube. They have a wonderful series for beekeeping as well as other gardening information.

      • Ma Hubbard

        February 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

        Thanks, AJ. I’ll check them out as well!

  5. married2rick

    February 13, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I can’t wait to learn more about these tunnels, I live in PA (where at this very moment we are in the midst of getting 12″-16″ of snow, wind, sleet and even a little rain!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you! Stay warm!

  6. Anna

    February 13, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Oh wow, love this post. I would so want you to share this with my readers in a ‘You Share’ post. Come over and see how it works, I would love to hear from you!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Thank you for the invitation!

  7. Rebecca

    February 13, 2014 at 11:49 am

    No offence but I have to ask because you didn’t mention anything about if your garden was organic. Were the seeds you used for the garden GMO seeds? They are known to be able to withstand freezing cold temps and brighter colors.

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      Rebecca, I garden organically, with the vast majority of my seeds being heirloom. GMOs aren’t more cold hardy or have more vibrant colors, and there is little GMO seed for home gardeners (these plants are spectacular without genetic engineering).

  8. Linda

    February 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Beautiful garden!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you, Linda!

  9. Stephanie

    February 13, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Wow, I’ve always wanted to grow during winter, but as I live up here in eastern Washington state, I’ve always thought it wouldn’t work. Maybe I’ll give it a try next winter. We live in a great little valley that has it’s own zones that get mixed up every year, sometimes 5, sometimes 6, depending on where you are and the year. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks, Stephanie. Winter gardening is totally possible in Zone 5; in fact, one of the pioneers of winter gardening, Eliot Coleman, is in zone 5 in Maine. Good luck!

  10. Stephanie

    February 13, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Amazing!! I want to try this next winter… Not sure if it will work quite this well in northern Wyoming 🙂 Our cold spells have been -20 to -30 with 1-2 feet of snow…. but I’ll be optimistic!!! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing!!

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

      You’re welcome, Stephanie!

  11. Linda Cubranich

    February 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Very impressive. Makes me want to make one. I’m in Cleveland, Ohio., so I know cold.

  12. Kim

    February 23, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    This is awesome! Very inspiring, even for me where our low has been… 40? But now that I have my garden back in and protected from marauding chickens and ducks I will look into those low tunnels. We have a lot of up and down temps here too, we have trees with blossoms on them and it’s way too early!

  13. Carole

    July 29, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    I’m jealous!

    I am sill in my learning curve for fall and winter gardening. I noticed that you have mixed beds with multiple crops. I have a few questions. ..1. Do you broadcast the seeds? 2. How do you keep the weeds at bay until the crop gets started? 3. Does it matter what types of seeds you plant together…ie will cabbage crowd out my carrots…etc.

    • Ma Hubbard

      August 4, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Carole. I generally precision-sow seeds, but will broadcast cover crop seeds as well as some seed mixes like mesclun or stir fry blends. I reduce weed pressure before planting by allowing weeds to germinate before I sow my crop, and then kill the weeds. I do this by watering the bed and covering with a black tarp for at least 2 weeks (weed seeds will germinate and then die from absence of light), or by simply waiting two weeks for weed seeds in an uncovered bed to germinate and disturbing the upper 1/2 inch of soil to kill germinated weed seeds. The key to either of these methods is to avoid deep cultivation of the bed again before planting, so that new weed seeds aren’t brought to the surface. This really knocks down the weed pressure, and I can then easily manage any remaining ones that show up with a collinear hoe and hand-weeding until the crop fills in.

      With regards to proper plant spacing, yes it is important, especially in winter when light is a limiting factor anyway. Cabbage will crowd out your carrots, but you could still plant them in the same bed if you simply don’t sow carrots in the area that will be occupied by the mature cabbage plant. For instance, if your cabbage variety calls for 24-inch spacing within the row, you know that the plant is going to spread at least 12 inches in each direction from where it is planted, so don’t sow any carrots within a 12-inch radius of your cabbage plant. Also keep in mind that a cabbage transplant will grow much more quickly than carrots sown from seed, so try to avoid sowing the carrots where they’ll be getting most of the cabbage’s shade (remember that the winter’s sun is lower on the horizon than in summer). Good luck!

  14. Pingback: Mother of a Hubbard 10 Vegetables More Cold-Hardy than Kale

  15. Pingback: Fabric or plastic? Choosing row cover