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How to harvest year-round

Despite the rough winter we just experienced in the Pacific Northwest, my husband and I harvested fresh vegetables all winter for 180 families from about five acres of gardens. by: COURTESY PHOTO - Polly Gottesman of Pumpkin Ridge Gardens shows off a bunch of cauliflower she recently harvested.

We’ve been growing year-round on Pumpkin Ridge since 1990. By upgrading diets with some winter-hardy vegetables and rethinking gardening schedules, it is possible to enjoy fresh produce from backyard gardens in the winter and early spring.

Winter harvesting doesn’t mean planting in the pouring rain or kneeling in frozen mud. Most of the work of winter gardening happens March through October. Some winter crops need to be started early, as they take a long time to mature. Others get transplanted in July or August and come into their full glory with cold weather.

The biggest mistake most people make when thinking about starting winter crops is to wait too long to start. Even quick growing winter-hardy greens, such as mustard greens and kale, need to be transplanted into the garden by August to make good growth before the short days of winter.

Leeks are a great introduction to the joys of winter harvesting and seasonal eating. They are related to onions but have a milder and more complex flavor. They take a long time to grow. We seed leeks between February and April, transplanting them into the garden in May and June for harvest beginning in November. Leeks can be transplanted about 6 inches apart in deep holes that will ensure a blanched shank (to see a tutorial on how to plant leeks without hilling, see our blog at pumpkinridgegardens.com). They can be harvested all winter long, even in years when temperatures fall below 10 degrees.

Brassica family crops, such as cabbage and broccoli, lend themselves well to winter gardening. Brussels sprouts are another good example. They need to be seeded in May and transplanted outside in June. Seeding them in a container and not directly in the garden has two advantages: The little seedlings are easier to take care of and the valuable and usually limited space in garden beds can be used for something else in the month the seedlings are growing.

Thus, an early patch of lettuce or spinach could be harvested, compost applied, and then Brussels sprouts plunked into the newly vacated spot. Much of the brassica family, including Brussels sprouts and kale, taste much better after being exposed to a frost. Their sugars are activated by cold, lending them sweetness. We harvest Brussels sprouts from November through March.

People don’t usually praise the winter weather in western Oregon, but we are lucky to have a generally mild maritime climate. Overwintering broccoli and cauliflower are unusual crops our European-like climate allows us to grow. Available as seed from local seed providers such as Territorial Seed Company or as transplants from nurseries and farmers’ markets, purple sprouting broccoli and overwintering cauliflower get seeded in June and transplanted into the garden in July. They grow to about 24 inches tall by early December, looking like unremarkable greens. Come March and April, however, when the leeks and kale are putting up flower stems, these plants make either beautiful sprouts of purple broccoli with tender edible stems or a large, unblemished cauliflower.

Because they are grown when most bugs are dormant, they are rarely afflicted by aphids and root maggots. Purple sprouting broccoli has the additional benefit of continuing to pump out plentiful delicious sprouts for six weeks or so.

There are plenty of resources available to help winter gardeners cook their bounty. Lane Morgan’s “Winter Harvest Cookbook” deals with Pacific Northwest vegetables. The Portland-based website cookwithwhatyouhave.com provides tips and encouragement to CSA customers and seasonal eaters. Growing vegetables 12 months a year makes eating fresh and local so easy.

Polly Gottesman runs Pumpkin Ridge Gardens, a Community Supported Agriculture farm, with her husband, James Just. Polly teaches classes on year-round gardening at Portland Nursery and in North Plains, and sells vegetable starts at the Beaverton Farmers’ Market.

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