It’s easy for home gardeners to grow glum in the winter, as they pine for the ripe tomatoes of summer, but even the coldest season can offer consolations, from savoring the fruits (and vegetables!) of last summer’s labor to planning for next year’s crops. Here are some ways you can make the most of the months when active gardening is a dream instead of a daily pleasure.
An abundant harvest will help gardeners get through the winter, which means a happy winter begins with a busy summer. To fend off that tomato longing, for example, you can bank jars of Opalka paste tomatoes to pop open for soups, stews, and sauces well into spring. Similarly, you can halve and dry pounds of Principe Borghese tomatoes, which wrinkle and shrink and concentrate their flavors, before submerging them in olive oil for salads and sandwiches.
These are the tastes of summer, literally the captured rays of sun in edible form, preserved and stored to see the home gardener through the dark winter months. Pickled okra in the cupboard, cured sweet potatoes in the basement, braided garlic hanging in the kitchen, green beans in the freezer, and winter squash under the bed. Kimchis and krauts of every kind. Shrubs and wines and meads made from autumnal fruit. Homegrown herbs dried and jarred for winter teas and tinctures.
There are also foods that can survive the cold and provide harvest throughout winter. Collards, kale, spinach, and carrots planted in late summer and early fall may not grow much during the short days of winter, but they’ll happily hang out on all but the coldest nights and sweeten with the frosty weather. Home gardens often become white caterpillar tunnels, or closed cold frames, protecting these winter crops from the most extreme temperatures.
Gardeners can also use the dormant season to help their soil regenerate for the spring ahead. Home gardens in winter are characterized by heaps of raked leaves ready for mulching garden beds in spring; dumped wood chips from neighborhood arborists to lay on garden paths and build complex soil webs; compost piles that steam on a winter’s morning as thermophilic bacteria break down food scraps into rich black compost. Conscientious gardeners will leave garden detritus strewn throughout the landscape as habitat for overwintering native bees and pollinators.
After the winter solstice, every day is a little longer than the last, and the change in seasons can happen quickly in Western North Carolina. Towards the end of January, there is just enough daylight for plants to begin waking up and growing again. If overwintering cover crops like Austrian winter pea and winter rye were planted, this is when they’ll perk up. Garlic and early flowering bulbs will begin to show their greens. While still cold, it is the start of spring.
Winter is when seed catalogs arrive and overwhelm the senses with so many options, and so much potential. It is a timely reminder that those grocery-store tomatoes can’t hold a candle to the hundreds of heirlooms that can be grown in the home garden. In anticipation, home gardeners will sharpen their tools, clean their pots, and take inventory of their seeds before ordering more. Roughly drawn garden plans are sketched on the backs of envelopes by some, while others manage complex spreadsheets of crop rotations, anticipated yields, and favorite varieties. Whatever the organizational preference, home gardeners all react to the lengthening days as if they too make energy by photosynthesis. As the pantry runs empty, like an hourglass, the garden and the gardener are renewed by winter, and primed to grow some more food.◊◊
Chris Smith is a seed saver and permaculturist who really enjoys writing. He is executive director of The Utopian Seed Project, a crop-trialing non-profit working to celebrate food. He serves on the boards of The People’s Seed and Sow True Seed. His book, The Whole Okra, was published by Chelsea Green in June 2019. More info at blueandyellomakes.com and theutopianseedproject.org