Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winter Gardening Compensates for Weather

Having a place to garden indoors, along with a couple of walk-in coldframes, has helped compensate for the cold, gray weather we so frequently experience during winter.

What We're Planting Now
This week, we are starting seeds indoors under flurorescent lights. Here's what we are growing:
  • Celery
  • Leek, American Flag
  • Scallion, Parade
  • Chard, Rainbow
  • Dill, Dukat
  • Parsley, Dark Green Italian
  • Broccoli, De Ciccio
  • Cauliflower, Summer Harvest
  • Cabbage, Round Dutch
  • Cabbage, Salad Delight
  • Lettuce, Red Romaine
  • Lettuce, Freckles
  • Lettuce, Lolla Rossa
Stored sweet potato roots can be brought out now to start them growing for transplants later in the season. Suspend one end of the tuber in a jar of water, place it in a warm, well-lighted location, and sprouts should begin forming within a couple of weeks. When sprouts have plenty of roots, carefully cut them from the potato and transplant to a small pot to continue growing. They will benefit from a weak dose of organic fertilizer while small. (Overfeeding older plants will reduce the crop, however.) Keep them warm and water the pots with lukewarm water. Cold soil is the enemy of sweet potatoes.

Outdoor Gardens
On sunny days, the temperature inside the coldframe climbs into the 80s, but it can drop to freezing by morning. The plants inside, mostly cold-hardy greens and herbs, have not made much growth, but at the days lengthen things should pick up. Out in the garden we still have lovely spinach, cilantro, parsley, thyme and carrots. The lettuce and celery have both succumbed to hard frosts, however. Next year, I plan to move some celery inside the coldframe for winter harvest. Slugs have been the only problem with growing celery late in the season, and we will deal with them next year with a copper barrier and iron phosphate bait. Despite the slow progress, we should be able to harvest greens in the next few days.

Corn Salad 'Vit'
As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite winter greens is corn salad, also called mache or lamb's lettuce. It will survive down to 5°F. Sow seeds thinly in rows about six inches apart, covering them with ¼ inch of fine soil. About six weeks after sowing, thin selectively as you wish to harvest. Leave the remaining plants to overwinter in place, spaced about six inches apart. For spring planting ouside start very early in cell trays and transplant to outdoor beds in March, spacing them about six inches apart. Mache grows well in containers, owing to its small size. Mature roots run over four inches, so provide a suitably deep pot.

Lettuce 'Michelle'
One of our best winter lettuces is shown above. Michelle has grown slowly but is producing lovely loose heads tinted with red. We have grown this lettuce for the first time this year, and will definitely grow it again.

Best Winter Gardening Tip:
Besides cold tolerance, look for early maturity dates when selecting seed varieties for winter growing under cover. These cultivars are the ones most likely to produce a satisfactory crop with the limited sunlight available during winter. For example, during January we average only about 9 hours of sun a day. This is further reduced by frequent cloud cover. The amount of solar energy available for vegetable production lags behind what would be available in June, when the days will be over 15 hours. Therefore, it makes sense to choose plant varieties adapted to mature a crop in fewer days than typical for the species. In the case of lettuce, days to maturity among 29 varieties offered by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange range from 40 to 68, almost a full month's difference. The earliest one, Salad Bowl, should be worth a try for growing with limited sunshine.

Indoor Garden Spots
A tiny new ginger plant is finally peeking up from the soil in the pot where it was planted a month ago. It won't go outdoors until around Memorial Day. Sage cuttings, purchased for the Thanksgiving dressing, are now well-rooted in a small vase near the kitchen windows. I'll pot them up soon, to await spring and the renovated herb garden outside.

The garage windows are home to three other perennial herbs. A lemon verbena struggles along in its ten-gallon pot. I will prune it back in spring, then move it to one of the in-ground beds. The prunings will be used to start new plants for subsequent grow-out in containers. I find that a single lemon verbena shrub wears out after a couple of years, requiring replacement. Nor is it reliably winter hardy in this climate, although I have had plants survive in a protected spot.

Bay laurel also can survive a winter here if it receives sufficient protection. Nevertheless, I am taking no chances with the small plant I purchased last spring from Stanley's Greenhouses in Knoxville. It doubled in size in a 12-inch terra cotta pot on the front porch last season, and I plan to move it to larger quarters in the spring.

The third plant spending winter in the garage is French tarragon. It flourished in a pot on the front porch until August, when it became scraggly looking. After Labor Day, I cut it back to the soil line. It responded with a flush of new sprouts during the cool weather of autumn. If I can protect it from frost and keep it alive until March, I should enjoy a fine harvest next spring. It will go in a companion pot to the bay laurel.

Herb Garden Plans for 2012
The space that will be devoted to herbs in 2012 has been used for leeks, garlic and scallions for the past three seasons, so it is past time to rotate something else in. I had already planted several clumps of French thyme along the outside edge of the bed last spring, along with a cascading form of rosemary that I picked up at a local garden center. The rosemary was stunning this fall when it bloomed along the face of the masonry retaining wall that supports this bed. We propagated some cuttings in the hope of adding them to the border in 2012. A few weeks ago, I divided a pot of chives and used the divisions to fill in the gaps between the existing thyme, rosemary and curly parsley plants. When the parsley bolts next spring, it will be replaced by two lemon thyme plants currently wintering in the greenhouse, and the rosemary starts, if they survive the winter.

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