From Winter Gardening to Winter Harvesting – Free GIY afternoon Sunday 18th October 2pm
by Hans Wieland
Winter gardening is one of the new buzz words in the media when in fact it’s been around ever since polytunnels set foot in Irish gardens and farms about 15-20 years ago. As the outdoor gardening season is quite short from about April to October, the use of a polytunnel enables us to grow all year round and right through the Winter, provided we have sown for the Winter harvest in time and also the right crop. Oriental vegetables are ideal for protected cropping; over wintering onions and garlic are good; early potatoes sown in the polytunnel from February can be harvested at the end of May and so on.
The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman, first published in March 2009, is one of the best books on growing organically, that I have come across in recent times. It was recommended to me while on a visit to organic market gardener Jim Cronin during a spell of heavy frost some years ago. Jim was still harvesting and selling at the farmers market in Killaloe and he said “Hans, this is essential reading for any serious grower.”
So for the past years I have been reading and re-reading this gem of a book, tried to incorporate the essence of it into my own gardening and teaching the skills on my polytunnel courses.
Coleman, who farms in Maine in USA, answers the questions “How do you produce first-rate food all year round in northern places?” Since he began commercial year-round production in 1995, he has recorded the “evolution” of his system and in the book describes the crops, tools, planting schedules and harvesting techniques he uses.
The winter harvest he practises at his Four-Season Farm has three major components: cold-hardy vegetables, succession planting and protected cultivation. He sums up the winter-harvest concept as follows: “In a world of ever more complicated technologies, the winter harvest is refreshingly uncomplicated because all three of these components are well known to most vegetable growers. What is not well known is the synergy created when they are used in combination, …”.
The book comprehensively covers everything from getting started and the yearly schedule to specific topics like sowing, weed control, pests and diseases and marketing and economics.
He also addresses the much discussed topic of reduced sunlight hours in the winter and concludes that “limited sunlight , while important, is only one of the factors that cause plant growth to slow down during the winter. The effect of below freezing temperatures is also significant.” So his cut-off point for new sowings is the end of October and he says that e.g. cut-and-come-again winter crops like spinach, claytonia or tatsoi continue productive re-growth after harvest during the winter months as long as they have established root systems.
There is also a short chapter on “Deep-Organic Farming and the Small Farm” that sees beyond the outputs of production and considers the values of production. “Shallow-organic farmers”, he says, look for quick-fix inputs and use bottled organic fertilizers and the latest on “organic weapons” against pest and diseases. This chapter raises some interesting questions regards the organic certification systems and he goes as far as saying that “the question we need to ask now is not ‘is it organic?’, but rather ‘is it nutritious?’”.
So he chooses varieties for “taste and nutritional value” and focuses “on quality rather than quantity”. He claims that the success of organic farmers has proven that it is best for the health of the soil “not to have our soil food manipulated by industry”. Producing highly nutritious vegetables depends on the ability of the soil to deliver every mineral in balance and like organic growers all over the world he pays close attention to trace elements, soil aeration and making “exceptional compost”..
Reading his chapters on summer and winter crops and discussing the merits of more individual varieties of more than 30 crops reminds me of the lengthy discussions some of us had in the early days of the organic movement in Ireland over which varieties are the best suited for salad bags. Let’s discuss the best ways of producing year-round vegetables in unheated greenhouses and polytunnels!
The book is published by Chelsea Green Publishing.