Year-Round Gardening Winter Gardening in the Pacific Northwest Zone 8
How we sow 11 months and harvest 12 months of the year
Disclaimer: Having said all I said below about gardening experts and scientists, I have to admit that I treasure my dog-eared gardening reference books. There have also been countless discoveries made by plant scientists that have greatly benefited gardeners. My point is that, as a gardener, I needed to develop clarity and confidence to relax and enjoy the pleasures of gardening, and this confidence only came from trying stuff out my way as I went, authorities be damned. Worrying about not doing things right according to the books was a major hindrance to my enjoyment of growing our own foods. Many books maintain an authoritative tone that scared the novice gardenere in me into thinking that there was only one way to do a certain gardening chore and if I did it the wrong way, I was doomed. This made me one nervous gardener, always looking back at the book to see if I was doing things exactly right. Having learned from experience that seeds, plants, and trees all want to thrive and that all I had to do was help them along, I was able to relax and enjoy the whole experience more.
Greens grow lush, crisp, crunchy, sweet, and juicy on nothing but a pile of hay that breaks down into the riches, darkest top soil.
Years ago, we tried raspberries in locations where they were supposed to like but never succeeded in getting good berries. Then, by chance, for lack of time, we stuck some roots that our neighbor gave us into the mulch in front of our greenhouse, awaiting a transplant to a better location. Then we forgot about them. We never even watered them. Then lo and behold, those few roots started multiplying without any care from us. Now we've got tons of raspberries from early June till frost (even the yellow Autumn Gold cherries start ripening in late June up on our sunny cliffs). They are totally amazing in orange-pineapple smoothies.
Cherry season is always exciting. We grow lots of yellow cherries because birds don't really go for them; they peck at the ripe berries here and there but leave the rest to us. And they are as delicious as the red ones. The red cherries? Forget it. We never get to see them once they start blushing.
When people refer to year-round gardening, they usually mean winter gardening because the winter months are the bottlenecks in being able to live off your garden year-round. During the warm seasons, gardening is easy as most anything will grow when the weather is warm.
It is middle of February, 2009, and we are eating mesclun salads freshly harvested from the garden from seeds we sowed in the greenhouse on December 24, 2008. It's our first year experimenting with sowing seeds year-round. We have been practicing year-round gardening since 2000, but never sowed as late as late December before. It was always late summer and early fall planting for fall and winter harvests. But we eat so much vegetables and fruits that we really had to ration our meals to make the harvest stretch into spring. Plus this past fall, I was away on a trip and didn't get to sowing winter crops in time; it was either trying to sow when you weren't technically supposed to and seeing what happened or going without enough vegetables for the winter.
Through this accidental experiment, we found that in our Pacific Northwest climate, one can actually sow 11 months of the year (in colder months, the sowings are done in the greenhouse or cold frames). Lettuce, spinach, chicory, escarole, claytonia, minutina, mache, parsley, kale, and chard all germinated as quickly as three days to as long as two weeks (the chard took longest) from a late December sowing. This greatly broadened our food supply possibilities. Most amazing of all is the fact that this has been an unusually cold and windy winter, with thermometer readings going as low as -8 celsius, which is quite low for our garden with a well-drained Southern slope microclimate and full exposure. We didn't lose any seedling to inclement weather. Of course all the sowing was done in the greenhouse.
The garden in late February. While all the action is happening in the greenhouse in terms of salad greens, the young tomato and pepper plants are braving it out in the Cozy Coats, a cloche that uses water to insulate the plants inside
The garden in early February. Although there's frost on the ground, we're harvesting plenty of greens from the coldframes and greenhouses.
It maybe frosty outside, but the claytonia — among other cold-loving greens — is ready to be harvested..
Surely, no flower in the garden has as direct an impact on the human heart as the water lily. Every year, we look forward to May when our first water lilies start to bloom. One look at them, and we instantly feel peaceful, calm, serene. It's a pity the beaver love them just as much — it's hard for the water lilies to spread in our big pond because the resident beaver eats them, shoots, leaves, flowers, rhizomes, and all almost faster than they can propagate.
Our 12th pond is totally loving the summer heat; it's full of life, and the water lilies are taking turns showing off their pure white and soft pink flowers. The house and solar panels are in the distance. On the left, our solar pump down in the valley (over 150 foot drop) is churning out fresh, cool, and much-needed water for the cliff-top garden.
Over the years of gardening haphazardly (due mainly to lack of time, for we were running all aspects of the Rawganique.com plus a retail store full-time, not to mention taking care of our myriad pet animals) and not following any rhyme or reason. We just have one goal in mind and that is being to live off our organic garden year-round. We may be haphazard but we're keen observers of everything that goes on in our garden. From our experience, we have learned that there is such a thing as...
An innate wisdom of plants (Subtitled: Becoming a fearless gardener)
Seeds want to sprout, seedlings want to grow, and plants want to thrive, as surely as our skin wants to heal any cuts or wounds on its surface and our hearts want to pump blood. It's the miracle of nature. Plants have an innate sense of what to do to fulfil its destiny (the tomato's seed's destiny is becoming a vigorous tomato vine bearing luscious tomatoes) and to do it in the most awe-inspiring, odds-defying, and creative ways. All we have to do as gardeners is set the stage for the miracle of life to unfold in our garden, naturally.
A lot of what we do and don't do in the garden come from common sense and a lot come from accidental discoveries. If you've been growing stuff for some years like we have, no doubt you have inadvertently left out a bunch of tomato seedlings in the greenhouse overnight in the process of hardening off and forgotten to bring them in. This, according to gardening textbooks, would surely kill them or at least permanently stunt them. Early the next morning, you get jerked out of bed by a sudden remembrance of what you had done, or rather forgotten to do. You half rush and half dawdle to the greenhouse in absolute dread and irresistible curiosity to see the sure carnage you had unleashed on your poor tomato seedlings. But you might be pleasantly surprised to find that most, if not all, of them survived and didn't look any worse for the wear and tear you'd put them through, even though the night had been cold. The seedlings, if naturally and well cared for, want to survive. They'll do whatever it takes within its confines to get through the cold night.
Nothing would deter a determined gardener. Klaus was mulching the walkway when he came across a piece of rock that upon further examination seemed like a nice big rock to feature by the side of the pond. So he dug up, but the rock turned ut to be much bigger and heavier than he thought. With determined effort and a couple of hours of leveraging, he managed to dislodge the rock from its hole and prop it up on layers of wood, ready to be moved to its intended location.
The blame is not wholly on the gardening textbooks that dish out dos and don'ts as if they were sacred laws written in stone, thereby permanently scaring gullible gardeners for life. The dos and don'ts become mantras, like all the rules of spelling we were taught in grade school. Well, gardening textbooks can't possibly cover everything, every exigency that could happen in the garden, or they would not be able to wrap up the textbooks and send them to the printers. The books would go on forever. And garden writers can't possibly know everything or they would have no life outside of writing and gardening. To add insult to injury, many writers are armchair gardeners who don't even know all the things they write about from first-hand experience. So they try to make sense of second-hand or third-hand information and present it to you and me in professional-sounding way. All textbook gardeners have to be armchair gardeners to some extent, for to write a general gardening textbook you need to cover tropicals as well as temperate plants and everything in between and to cover different soils, weather variations, and garden elevations.
Now, even if I didn't know anything about gardening, I'd know that there is a huge difference between a tropical garden and a temperate one. But how many properties on earth do you know that are both tropical and temperate in the same location. I don't know of any outside of huge indoor tropical gardens at the zoo that, thanks to massive inputs of fossil resources to keep them "tropical", co-exist side by side with temperature outdoor gardens. So how can these textbook writers write knowingly about the growth and fruiting habits of bananas on one page and apples and peaches on the next??
When I want to find out something as hands-on as gardening, I want real information from first-hand experience and observation, not some hearsay or speculations of a biologist in a lab coat who spend all her day in the lap looking at plant parts and soil bits through the microscope. Unless a particular writer flies back and forth between two gardens all the time and tending equally well to both, there is no way for them to "know" intimately about everything under the sun. And gardening is a very intimate experience: it's you getting to know your site's strengths and weaknesses, your soil, your plants, and the animals big and small that live in or visit your garden. Many writers don't even know anything about gardening. They are just ghost writers hired by the book company to "compile" date from scientists and researchers. But they don't let these facts keep themselves from sounding authoritative on every subject under the gardening sun.
Like trying to make allowances for the variations in human features, height, and skin imperfections, which for even a community of 500 is an insurmountable job, trying to describe what plants would do under a particular situation is a lost cause.
Our homestead is home to many a black-tailed deer. They are very beautiful animals, gentle, elegant, refined, except when they are see the sumptuous vegetables in your garden and try to get in: they jump, chew through fencing, and otherwise do all they can to see that they get in. When they get like this, they are mean-spirited and cruel. They could ravage whole beds of greens overnight and snack on young trees and their bark, too. In our neck of the woods, venison is commonly known as gardener's revenge. But of course, we ourselves are not so angry at them as to even think of killing or eating them!
A neighbor of ours recently had the roof of her greenhouse come crashing down in a winter storm of hurricane-like proportions. The roof was made of glass and a heavy one at that. It crashed down and destroyed the greenhouse, pretty much.Her house also sustained damage from several trunks of a huge tree that had fallen on the house roof, and it was all she and the caring neighbors could do to tend to that.
So while the house was being repaired with the help from the willing and able in the community (it's a heartwarming thing — I guess that's the biggest reason people live in the country: we do care for one another despite the feuds and personality differences. People do turn out to help when others are in need), my neighbor left the greenhouse and the plants that were growing in it to their own devices. This unfortunate event happened in November. Come April, she went into what was left of the greenhouse one morning and was surprised to find so much life there in plants that supposedly "needed" the protection of the greenhouse. True, many plants had died in the exposure to the winter cold, wind, and rain, but many more of the very same species survived. The ones that thrived the most vigorously were the ones with pieces of glass overhead. Some big pieces of the roof had fallen to the soil at an angle, kind of a like a slanted mini-roof, with all the other sides were exposed to the elements. The ones under these mini-roof thrived as vigorously as if they had been protected from the weather on all sides.
Sometimes it seems plants are capable of using whatever was on hand to make the best of the situation. Kind of like people, huh? How often have we heard about making a lemonade when life gives you lemon? Well, plants are equally intelligent even if you were hard pressed to locate their brain. The wisdom of plants, age-old and more ancient than you and I can ever know, is in every minuscule cell. So trying to describe the growing conditions that pertain to your site is impossible. All you can rely on is your own experience and creativity and, most importantly, your plants' innate wisdom.
Knowing this first-hand and through careful observation has given me faith in all life forms. I feel so free, so liberated from precepts, theories, and concepts. I know that I can go bare foot and bare handed into my garden with just some basic information like if a plant is a heat or cold lover and I'll be fine. Having no time to waste on empty words, I now quickly glean through seed catalogues and garden references looking for some very basic information I need. The rest I ignore. I know I'll have plenty to eat from my garden and the wild. My plants will be happy because I provide them with the very best food there is, and that is...
There is only one food for plants and it is not a complicated combination of nitrogen or potassium or phosphorous or whatever unique or combination of minerals and nutrients but just one simple thing: the casting of the earthworm. Just as the human body thrives on the organic water found only in fruits and vegetables, plants thrive on whatever magic ingredients are found in an earthworm casting. You can survive on denatured foodstuffs but only at the expense of long-term vitality and health. Sooner or later, you'd have to pay the price in an illness of chronic or acute proportions.
When it comes to gardening and nature in general, anything that can only be known through the most powerful microscopes is safely left unknown; not knowing that pearl of wisdom won't affect your gardening one way or the other. Deer and zebras don't count calories and they are fine. Birds don't know what carbohydrates are and they thrive in the wild. Giraffes don't measure their blood pressure and they don't seem to suffer any harm. Anything that is really specialized and technical that only the specialists can find out or know, I as a natural gardener can safely ignore. The facts and information might be interesting to know, but I don't need them to grow nutritious organic fruits and vegetables that will nourish me.
When gardening books say to make sure that there is enough nitrogen and phosphorous for this particular plant to ensure healthy leaves or roots or whatever, I ignore it. I know I've already provided my plants with the very best conditions in which to thrive. For example, the experts say don't put raw chicken manure on newly planted apple trees or you'll get lots of leaves but no fruit. Well, I pile buckets of raw chicken manure on the mulch under my apple trees and peach trees and other fruit trees and they bear fine. Experts say that from their examination, chicken manure is very concentrated and too high in nitrogen and should be avoided if possible for it would "burn" plants. Well, chickens are birds, and birds poop everywhere on the surface of the earth, right on the grown, and trees in nature don't seem to mind.
Reading them, you'd think chicken manure is the absolute worst of the worst. But from my own experience of handling chicken manure everyday, I find it to be rich and pleasant and good for the whole garden. Since I feed our chickens organic greens, grains, and let them free-range for bugs in the soil, I find that their manure doesn't even have the foul smell associated with store-bought chicken manure that comes from chicken factories that keep thousands of chickens confined 4 levels high under artificial lighting and roof and being fed concentrated pellets and by-products.
I clean our chicken and duck coop everyday and, even though I'm a squeamish person by nature, I don't find the odor offensive at all. Again another analogy with the human body. I find that if I eat processed and denatured stuff, my stool smells offensive, but when I eat only fresh organic vegetables, fruits, and nuts, the delivery is easy and there is no smell in the stool. So I ignore all that chemical advice about being sure to put in nitrogen and the like, as I know I have plenty of everything in my soil, thanks to the worm castings. My plants are given free choice. They can select whatever they need from the buffet table of rich black worm castings and go away happy and healthy. I've even heard that if the need arises, plants can even transform one chemical element into another. Too bad the alchemists never looked to plants to find the secret of turning some worthless metal to gold. Such is the wisdom of plants and, ultimately, nature.
By the way, when I put raw chicken manure on my mulch, I'm not feeding it to my plants. Rather I'm feeding the manure to my worms. They quickly ingest it through their bodies and eject nutritious worm castings, which is then food for my plants. This is true of all rottable stuff, not just chicken manure. Hay, orange peels, vegetable trimmings, leaves all become beautiful worm castings in the end, thanks to the worms that naturally exist in the soil.
I truly don't think the end product — the earthworm casting — is any different if the worm eats a leaf instead of an orange peel, the way each compost pile is different depending on what went into the pile in the first place. That's because heat and bacteria is the principle factor that breaks down a compost pile and these two allow the pile to retain their chemical composition. In putting my plant refuse in the garden directly, I feed my worms at regular "unheated" temperature. The worm is the principal factor in the breakdown of our garden refuse. The worm "defecates" in one way and that is ejecting dark round moist "pellets" or worm castings and these castings are all rich in all the mysterious substances that make plants thrive, regardless of what the worm "ate."
Every inch of our garden space if teeming with hundred and thousands of happy worms. Why shouldn't they be happy? They have a totally natural environment in which to live, organic foods in which to eat, and zero chemical in which to harm them. We garden this way, and we feel safe and sound in our garden. No toxic fumes of chemicals or pesticides to worry about, ever, which cannot be said of so-called commercially grown organic vegetables. The monocrop culture prevalent at most commercial sites are purposely designed with big fossil-fuel-powered machines in mind. If you find the idea of eating produce that have been gassed repeatedly gassed with diesel fumes and all the toxic stuff in them objectionable, then you might want to think about growing all of your own food. This is because tractors and other machines are used for everything in a commercial farm operation: from plowing, to seed sowing, to hoeing, to harvesting, to managing green manures, to spreading compost and manure. Most commercial operations are also strategically located next to the highway for ease of transportation. We know we don't have that problem in our garden because we only use...
(Having said all that, we do buy certified organic produce to supplement our garden produce at certain times of year, and we also buy organic avocados, bananas, and oranges. We do support organic agriculture, even the commercial one, but we really think that the very best foods for us are grown in the organic hand-tended garden. The next best is locally grown organic foods grown by hand. Then come certified organic foods. Anything else is not an option. )
We do all of our gardening from starting on new ground to day to day maintenance with just. We greatly dislike any powered tool that uses gasoline, that's why we live off the grid in the first place. We also don't like the noise pollution and the inherent danger in even plug-in powered devices. And obviously gardeners had gotten by splendidly for centuries without powered tools, why couldn't we do the same? Of course we can. We only use hand trowels, mini forms, shovels, forks, and a pickaxe. We water the whole big garden by hand. That's how we like it, and it works fine for us.
I know my plants are well fed, my worms are happy, my soil is alive and vibrant. The best way to make sure I always have plenty of worm castings in my garden is to mulch, mulch, and mulch some more.
The bare bones of the garden in the middle of winter. Notice the fiber glass greenhouse in the foreground, a rectangular one, two hexagonal ones, and the attached greenhouse by the house with the red roof. Although it's winter outside, there's a lot going on inside the greenhouse which provide us with yummy and nutritious produce throughout the year.
Another bare bones photo of the house in winter. Hexagonal greenhouse is in the foreground.
When we first started homesteading, we had very little money and so we learned to identify and eat plenty of wild greens which were abundant and nutritious. We have made a habit of cultivating the wild foods where we find them, giving them better growing conditions, mulching them, which they appreciated most of the time. Some, however, prefer to grow under forlorn sunbaked, soil-less conditions, and these we leave them well alone.
This is the list of vegetables and fruits we grow because they are the vegetables we eat on our raw food diet:
Mache (corn salad)
The various mustard greens
The various Oriental greens
Cabbage (we eat the leaves; some of our plants have been producing for 3 years)
Carrots (we eat only the tops and get a surprising long harvest out of one plant)
Beets (we also eat only the greens)
Parsnips (again, we only eat the tops of the root crops: they greens are more nutritious; since the roots are so mighty, they keep growing new leaves for us to eat: a great deal, considering all these greens come from one seed, one root: a better bang for the buck than digging up the root and killing the plant)
The various cresses
Nasturtiums (the greens and the flowers: these plants self-seed themselves at a furious rate. Our garden is overgrown with them and we love it!)
Calendula (we eat the petals in salads)
Zucchinis (we grow tons of these to feed our pet chickens, ducks, and geese)
Squash and pumpkins (again, these are grown mainly for the poultry)
As you can see, our preference is for long-lived annuals, perennials, and self-seeders because they are very little work, hardy, and generally very nutritious. We usually don't grow heavy feeders and space hoggers like corn or broccoli because we get relatively little food value out of the work they require and the space they occupy.
Fruit Trees and Nut Trees
As a major part of our diet (about half) consists of fresh fruits, we made sure to put in a lot of fruit trees and nut trees as many of them take years to bear. We concentrated on temperate varieties but also couldn't resist seeking out the more exotic ones, too.
These are the fruit and nut trees we have in our orchard. Some are grown in our 24-foot-tall greenhouse that is attached to our house.
Apples (65 varieties, mostly heritage)
Shellbark and Shagbark HIckories
Figs (there is nothing, absolutely nothing like a ripe fig fresh from the tree, except:)
Mulberries (the ultimate king of the fruits, in our opinion: the plumpest, sweetest, most prolific and vigorous berry that grows on trees and requires very little care. The harvest season is very long as around 4 months)
Because we had very poor gravelly, rocky soil when we started, many of our trees took their time to get to a decent size the first few years. But faithful mulching year after year has enriched the soil and now that we are finally installing a solar water pump, we expect them to start growing by leaps and bounds. Fencing the fruit trees in away from deer is always a challenge in this deer country. And before we gave away our goats, we always had to protect the trees from the goats which were almost worse than the deer because the goats were already in our garden! Then there's the beavers, who cut trees left and right to build their dams and stockpile their winter food in the pond. But despite the challenges and losses, we are hooked on gardening: it's a meditative experience that's rewarding on so many levels. Come harvest season, we know we really do have a lot to be thankful for.