Four seasons gardening is a new concept to the modern gardener. But to our ancestors it meant survival. All their planning and care through the growing season was directed to producing food for winter and early spring harvest. In colder regions, where a protected parsnip would hardly survive, preservation of food from late summertime and well into the fall absorbed most of their time.
Sadly, our survival instincts have been dulled by easy access to imported supermarket foods and we’ve lost much of the knowledge that was our heritage. In our gardening course we strive to put time tested gardening know-how back into the hands of gardeners.
Season extension is a foreign idea to many gardeners today. Gardeners have become used to putting their garden to rest in the fall and harvesting beets, leeks, radicchio, Napa cabbage and mustard greens after November is utterly unimaginable. For growers in more temperate regions, above zone six, we must do better if regional food-security is our aim.
I’m always surprised at the abundance we can harvest from our market garden after the winter solstice. And if we can do it as market gardeners, little room for excuse is left for home gardeners who often can take advantage of microclimates from buildings and hedges that provide excellent windbreaks in more urban settings.
We live in a wet, overcast, and Northerly zone seven along the West Coast where temperatures occasionally dip below -15°C (5°F) with icy, Arctic outflow winds.
But even in these harsh conditions we harvest deliciously sweet carrots, savoy cabbages, winter radishes and even spinach that are grown on the south side of our barn. With greenhouses we extend our seasons even more.
Our growing season is around 20 weeks long. During this period, we need to produce enough food to carry us through the six month off-season from November to April. From a regional food-security perspective, we can’t afford to fail here.
Who knows, our lives may depend on it and it all begins with a thoughtful plan.
In the garden course we draw from years of experience with planning crop schedules for maximum production through all the seasons. We teach that it is vital to first plan for the long-season, slow growing and mainstay vegetables. Winter squash, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, winter cabbage, garlic, over-winter cauliflower, dry beans and endive, all come to mind.
Once these vegetables have been accounted for, we fill our garden diagram with fast-maturing, less-essential foods such as greens and radishes that often can be intercropped or relay planted along with the staple vegetables.
I like to keep crop planning simple for new growers who should experiment for the first couple growing seasons with timing, placement, and variety. But for seasoned growers, who’ve developed some mastery, careful crop planning is key.
A meticulously laid out plan that’s executed with forethought prevents our gardens from overcrowding and ensures that we have a manageable, year-round harvest that can meet the needs of the household or community.
When we fail to plan, we may forget to leave space during the growing season for foods we’ll need in the winter.
For example, parsnips in our region should be sown in the second week of summer. But if the beans that are occupying the space where the parsnips need to be planted require an extra week or two to mature, the winter parsnip harvest will yield half of its full potential.
A carefully made plan, on the other hand, would allow for an early sowing of radishes, intercropped with romaine lettuce and then followed by the slow maturing and all-important winter parsnips. Get the timing right!
With careful organization our gardens can yield abundantly even through the darker days of winter. Harvesting during the chilly winter months, I can assure you is intimidating at times. But nothing gives greater joy than wrestling gold nugget carrots from the ground and chopping down Brussels sprouts for Christmas!