The Garden Survives a Record-Breaking January

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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.

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27 Comments

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