The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
“Plants want to grow; they are on your side as long as you are reasonably sensible.”
Art by Ginny Neil
Last fall, the cold winds of a coming winter sang out on top of the mountains, telling me that it was time to put the garden to bed for a season. Even though it had already frosted, I was surprised to find some plants clinging to summer. One of them was on the south side of my screen porch. In the spring I had planted a pot full of lettuce. It had yielded several salads and then, when my garden exploded with summer’s bounty, I forgot about it. The arugula and mixed greens continued to grow in the pot, overflowing it, going to seed, and then dying back in the first frost of fall.
As I was chasing my chickens out of the yard, I glanced at the forgotten pot. We’d had many hard frosts and even a week of temperatures below freezing. To my surprise, a long woody stem hung over the side of the pot and, at the very tip, a green flag of lettuce fluttered in the cold breeze. I broke off a piece of it and placed it in my mouth. It tasted like spring.
Later, I walked out to the garden. The ground was cold and everything was brown, yet in the middle of the frost-rimed rows, I spotted some limp green leaves. I had forgotten to pull a section of rutabagas. There they were, partially buried, their purple tops peeking out of their frosty bed. I was certain they would be soft, but when I pulled one and carried it into the house, I cut into a firm center and the flesh was sweet. A gift preserved and improved by the cold ground.
My unexpected bounty led me to some research. It turns out that there are several vegetables which can be left in the ground over the winter. In addition to rutabagas, these vegetables are also winter-hardy: carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips, celery, cabbages, leeks and kale.
I was lucky with the rutabagas. My chickens had scratched enough dirt over the root vegetables’ shoulders to provide some protection from the cold. I thought the chickens were raiding the garden. It turns out they were raking.
All of the vegetables that are on the list above need to be tucked well into the ground before the first killing frost. Only their leaves should be exposed to the elements. Then, when nightly frosts are the norm, cover the vegetables completely with a mulch of leaves, pine straw or hay. If you are using leaves, try bagging them so they won’t blow away. Leave the covering in place unless the weather warms significantly.