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Garden Notes for Autumn and Winter

A few days ago, we had our first hard frost in Northern Michigan—a little late in the season and very welcome to a gardener. The following day, I went out to put the garden to rest. With my wheelbarrow nearby, I started going from raised bed to raised bed, methodically pulling out the limp remains of the frosted plants. I started with the beans, proceeded to the three tomato beds, and then pulled out the basil, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, and the squash. I paused at the two beds full of annual, bee-loving flowers, sorry to see the once colorful part of the garden dimmed and frozen.

The memory of this area of the garden brings me back to my childhood. I grew up on the outskirts of Athens, Greece, on a piece of land that I remember fondly. At least five acres in size, it abounded with fruit trees: apricot trees, mulberries, figs and cherries. The little path leading to the neighbors’ house was planted with grape vines, replete with hedgehogs who spent their shy lives in the small culverts that spanned the path. The area in between held rows and rows of prickly artichoke plants. The flowers of the artichokes resemble giant thistles piercing the air above the fanning leaves. Our neighbors’ chickens raised their chicks under the bristly leaves.

My mother was an amazing gardener. She preferred flowers and herbs over vegetables, and her gigantic white roses were the envy of the neighborhood. She minded her garden every day, squirreling away precious water to tend her flowers. In the arid months of the summer, her garden blossomed. I think that my love for gardening dates to that time.

Our neighbors grew lilac bushes all along the front of the yard, and in the spring the fragrance wafted our way. Along with the eucalyptus trees on the other side of the road, the air was always scented with something blooming. Mine was an active childhood spent entirely outdoors; we only came inside to sleep.

Returning to the task at hand, I set my wheelbarrow down and stretch my back. Getting ready for winter is physical work. It demands bending, pulling hard, shaking the roots, placing the once vibrant plants into the wheelbarrow and making several trips to the compost pile. Most of the 25 beds I tended over the summer are now ready for next year’s planting.

The fun, however, isn’t entirely over. My fall vegetables are taking precedence right now. The cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, and beets will stay in the ground for several more weeks, as will the arugula and some of the lettuce. Kale stays in also, and I harvest it as needed. I prefer to pick the beets in late fall, although it’s a crop that can overwinter, also. Carrots take the prize because they develop such sweetness with the colder temperatures and are a staple in our home, eaten raw or cooked.

Fall temperatures make these hardy vegetables taste crunchy and sweet, and they can be harvested throughout the fall and winter months. Living in the Zone 5 Hardiness Zone, I need to be aware of the limits of my little plants. Looking out for protection, I always apply some sort of cover over the plants that will stay in for the winter. Depending on the acidity of the soil that the plants love, I can cover with leaves, sawdust, pine needles, or straw.

Garlic: My forty plus garlic heads were harvested in early September, so now is the time to plant the crop for next year. The individual cloves will stay in the ground for almost a year. I prepared one of the beds, and, choosing 12 garlic heads from this year’s harvest, I planted the individual cloves several inches apart. They will stay snug under the earth with the coming snow. The garlic greens are the first to pop up in the spring, and the tops can be harvested sparingly. I use them to spice up our salads along with the wild leeks that grow on the hillside by the house.

Multiplying Onions: One of the most prolific crops in a kitchen garden is the versatile multiplying onion. Like its name suggests, it is very easy to grow because it propagates itself with no help from the gardener. Left alone, it grows little bulbs on slender heads, which late in the season bend down, touch the ground, develop roots, and voilà, several little onions emerge. Multiplying onion greens are good in salads, and the small heads go well with potatoes and peas, or in vegan omelets. Try this Multiplier Onion Pesto: You can substitute with the more common green onions. Both are rich in thiamine as well as Vitamins C, B2, A, and Vitamin K. The fresh flavors of this pesto will elevate any salad, pizza, or pasta dish and will have you dreaming of summer.

Cabbage and Cauliflower: I typically plant the cruciferous plants together, sprinkled with marigolds for pest control. Since this time of the year the marigolds have been removed, there is more space for the cabbage and the cauliflower. I remove outer, wilted leaves of the cabbage and cover the plants with a thin layer of leaves. Since the cauliflower will not last much longer unprotected, I harvest that first and leave the cabbage for later.

Swiss Chard, Kale, and Arugula: These are good crops that last through most of the winter. Swiss Chard, with its glossy, ruby-veined leaves can take much cold and still yield a nice crop. It is a biennial and will produce flowers and seeds the following year. If protected with straw and/or leaves, I can harvest it for several weeks after a hard frost. Kale and arugula will do well on their own, and they get crisper as the cold increases. I use Swiss chard, to supplement the spinach in my vegan spinach pies.

Carrots: A favorite winter crop in my garden, carrots stay in the ground all winter long covered up by leaves or straw. It is a rare pleasure to walk out to the garden in the winter, shovel off a foot or two of snow, remove the straw, and get down to the carrots that have remained in the ground during the winter months. In the cold, they produce more sugars (nature’s antifreeze) and are extremely sweet. Mom’s Autumn Carrot and Squash Soup, both creamy and savory,  will keep you cozy through the autumn and winter months.

My root cellar (pantry) abounds with colorful produce harvested the past month: garlic and onions in their baskets, squash in rows on every available surface; tomatoes collected green and ripening in newspaper; canned pickles on the shelves, and apples in bushel baskets. Gardening, even in small spaces, is enjoyable and bountiful. A small area behind the house that is sunny can yield a bumper crop of veggies. The easiest way is to start now, before the snow comes. After deciding what the best area is, start covering it with one or two layers of clean, heavy cardboard. You can cover the cardboard with leaves that you’ve raked from your yard. Come spring, you can fabricate a bed around the space you covered using non-treated wood, buy several bags of organic soil, and you are ready to plant. Try tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, arugula, onions, zucchini. Or plant any vegetable you like. Start small and enjoy the bountiful harvest and the spring-in-your-step that a garden can give you.

-Lizzie Treefon for the Veggie Fest Team

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