Winter gardening: lessons learned and modified expectations

Winter chard and kale

Winter chard and kale from my garden

This is the second year I have tried to garden year-round, and  I am happy to report that this year has been much more successful than last. The big lesson I learned last year was that plants need to be planted early – in July or August – so that they are fairly large and well established before the cold weather hits. If you plant your winter garden in September or October, you are just going to be watching a bunch of tiny sprouts suffer in the cold.

This year by the fall equinox, I had spinach, kale, carrots, pac choi and four types of lettuce all growing strong, as well as some Swiss chard that had been planted early in the spring.  The spinach, lettuce and half of the kale were covered. I didn’t have enough materials to cover everything, so the uncovered kale became the control group.

My big expectation was that winter gardening would yield a reliable source of greens throughout the winter, and that covering my vegetables would substantially increase my yields. This was not quite the way it turned out. Here is what I learned:

  • Things don’t grow very fast in the winter. Okay, so this is kind of a no-brainer, but for some reason I have been waiting for an explosive abundance of kale. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Each time I go out to harvest I have been picking the largest few leaves off each plant, and with each subsequent harvest the leaves are getting smaller and smaller. Most leaves are now the size of my thumb. By spring there won’t be anything left, but that’s okay. Other plants – spinach and lettuce – haven’t grown at all this winter.
  • Don’t cover the plants until it gets cold. I put up the slug biodomes at the end of October, and created the party palace for every slug and bug in the garden. By December the activity had stopped but by then most of the lettuce had been eaten. Next year I will put up the covers much later, especially since….
  • The covers don’t seem to make a lot of difference in the rate of growth. The curly kale is growing at a similar rate inside and outside the biodome. Although the kale growing outside is slightly smaller, it is also denser and much curlier, but tastes the same as the inside kale. The lettuce and spinach inside the dome are not thriving and the chard outside the dome is growing just fine. The one advantage of the dome is that it has prevented the plants from getting flattened by snow.
  • Don’t plant stuff you don’t like to eat. I keep telling myself this and yet I am still not learning. The pac choi is doing GREAT – but it is hard to tell if it is actually growing, or if it is just not being eaten by humans. I also grew mizuna lettuce, but everyone kept picking out the leaves and leaving them on their plate so I finally pulled it up.

Overall, this year’s winter garden produced less than I expected, but is still producing enough so that we have a serving of fresh veggies from our garden about once a week –  the photo at the top is a typical harvest. I expect that the fava beans and arugula planted in November will have a head start this spring, and I am also hoping that  my spinach comes to life in the warmer weather. Late next summer I am going to plant winter kale again, but will skip the spinach, lettuce and pac choi, and won’t put the dome on until December.

About Chrystal

This blog is my online journal to keep track of what is going on in different parts of the garden, different times of the year.
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