Living from our winter vegetable garden

Beets growing in the urban vegetable garden.

Beets, greens and other goodies in the winter vegetable garden.

This year, we are trying to grow all of our own produce, year-round, in our urban winter vegetable garden. Here’s how we plan to get through the cold season.

I haven’t bought any vegetables in six months.

Okay, that isn’t *completely* true. We bought some garlic because I didn’t plant enough, some white onions because for some reason I didn’t plant any, and sweet potatoes because I was craving them the other day and they don’t really grow in our climate.

But other than that, we’ve been feasting on salads, soups and stir-fries from the garden since May. This year has been a good one, with continuous sunny days that are rare in British Columbia. We built three amazing new beds in the backyard farm, filled them with five cubic yards of high-quality purchased soil, and planted new seeds every week. The past few months have seen an explosion of huge, perfect beets, towering kale, greens of every kind, sweet carrots and even abundant basil, notoriously hard to grow in this region. We filled three freezers with blanched spinach, arugula pesto, corn, peas, green beans and soooo much zucchini.

I set out at the beginning of spring with a personal challenge to grow enough veggies for four people. So far, it’s worked perfectly.

Now that November is here, though, I occasionally get worried. The garden is still bursting with produce, but look at it closely, and you can see that some of it is diseased. Everything was perfect until the end of August, but now we have a mild case of powdery mildew on the kale, leaf miner damage on the chard and beet leaves and rust on some of the scallions. The tomatoes succumbed weeks ago to late blight, once the rain got to them. I had to get rid of a couple of large tote boxes worth of what would otherwise be delicious greens, and toss them into the city compost where they won’t infect other plants.

But I’m still as excited as ever about the garden. Back in early October, I planted a ton of seeds under our hoop houses — hardy mesclun mix, mache, radishes, lettuce and pac choi — for early spring harvest. Our parsnips will be at their peak in January after a couple of hard frosts (though I couldn’t help but harvest a few the other day — I told myself I was “thinning” them). The parsley and chives are still healthy, abundant and growing like crazy. And we have a whole new crop of arugula, cilantro and other seedlings that are just coming into their own.

If it comes down to it, I’ll forage for wild chickweed — it keeps growing all winter and usually imposes itself on the pots at our home balcony. I’ll start sprouting and growing microgreens in the kitchen. I’ll tear into the jars of lacto-fermented pickled veggies in our fridge, and will start “harvesting” from the freezers. Bring on the spanakopita, palak paneer, zucchini bread, chili and other recipes that lend themselves to frozen vegetables.

As a last resort, I’ll sign up for winter CSA boxes at Harvest, our local organic mini grocery store. Unlike other CSAs, this one allows customers to sign up on a week-by-week basis, so I can use it to bridge gaps in our growing season without making a big commitment. Technically, this violates our rule of living off the garden, so I’ll see how long I can go without it.

Will be be able to keep eating out of the garden all winter? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try. Are you growing a winter vegetable garden? I’d love to hear how you do it.

WHAT’S GROWING THIS WEEK: Yesterday, I harvested two big totes full of kale, chard, onion greens, parsley, carrots, dill and lettuce. There are tons of beets and parsnips waiting for us for later.

It’s been a warmer than usual fall in my opinion, with gorgeous sunny days alternating with torrential rainstorms that I don’t remember from past years. Everything except for our kale and garlic, which are heavily mulched, is covered up tightly until poly tunnels. Our red onion sets, planted in the spring and sad-looking for most of the year, are finally bursting into life now. And our garlic, planted on October 5, is sprouting, which is NOT a good thing. I should have taken our warm fall (climate change?) into account this year and waited until mid-October… but our busy lives and the possibility of a sudden cold snap led me to time things a bit earlier. Lesson learned and fingers crossed that our garlic will do ok!

Yesterday, I also experimented with densely planting a bunch of peas, lettuce and other seeds for microgreens in a section of a bed where our September-planted spinach didn’t germinate. Time will tell if it works!


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