I am a big fan of using year-round gardening to harvest fresh food twelve months a year – even in cold climates. Not only is fresh food more nutritious and tasty than canned or frozen, but it is a lot more energy-efficient.
When I was a child, we planted our entire row garden within a 2-4 week time period, and usually had to harvest each crop within a similar narrow time frame. This resulted in a glut of food that we had to eat within a few days or weeks. We needed to can or freeze any food that we couldn't eat at once. It was a huge amount of work to preserve lots of food in the few short weeks of August and September.
Successful year-round gardening involves:
- expanding the varieties of fruit and vegetables in your diet
- learning to eat more fresh food in season
- growing varieties of fruit and vegetables that store easily
- extending the growing season of some crops
- extending the harvesting season for many crops
Enjoy More Variety
Many Americans grow only the standard summer vegetables – tomatoes, corn, peppers, white potatoes, melons, etc. Most of these crops can only grow and thrive during warm, frost-free summer weather. Unless you live in a warm climate, it's too expensive to grow these crops twelve months a year, as they need lots of light and very warm temperatures.
The easiest way to enjoy fresh crops all year is to also learn to grow and eat a variety of cool-season vegetables. These can grow and thrive even with occasional frosts – kale, spinach, carrots, peas, radicchio, broccoli, and many more. Many of these plants become very sweet with the onset of cold weather, and you can harvest them through much of the winter with a little protection.
I was not very fond of spinach or broccoli until I grew them myself in the right season – cold weather! Growing these crops properly (with good fertility and moisture levels) and in the right season (frosty weather) brings out an incredibly delicious flavor that you will never find in store-bought produce. I will tell you more about how to grow winter vegetables later in this chapter.
What Do You Do With These Winter Vegetables?
Don't know how to prepare the less-common winter vegetables in your kitchen? It's pretty easy to search the Internet for recipes that include certain foods, but if you would like a cookbook that specializes in winter vegetables, I highly recommend: Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables, by Andrea Chesman. You'll enjoy this book whether you're a vegetarian or a meat-eater. She provides 270 recipes, with many ethnic flavors to choose from. You'll learn a variety of simple tips on how to bring out the very best flavor in cabbage, turnips, Brussel sprouts, and other winter vegetables that many people have learned to hate because they weren't prepared properly.
I have also used Winter Harvest Cookbook: How to Select and Prepare Fresh Seasonal Produce All Winter Long, by Lane Morgan. I found this book very helpful in teaching me when to harvest and how to prepare winter crops that I was unfamiliar with.
Eat Fresh Food in Season
Each crop tastes the best in its own season – tomatoes and melons are exquisite in the baking heat of late summer, and spinach and broccoli are much sweeter in cold frosty weather. It's quite possible to extend the harvest season of many crops for a few weeks outside their “normal” season, but expect the flavor to not be as prime. It will be up to you to decide if you will still enjoy the crop enough to push the limits of when you plan to harvest it.
Americans have come to expect to eat the same food every month of the year. We have forgotten the joy of eating incredibly delicious food in season. Fresh food that is grown and harvested at the right time of year is better tasting than anything you can buy in the store. Although I will can or freeze some of the extra harvest of my favorite crops, I am able to enjoy tasty and nutritious food all year-round without having to preserve most of it because I am willing to eat much of my food when it is in season.
I also choose to grow varieties of crops that are easy to store for long periods of time. My onions, squash, sweet potatoes, and garlic keep in good condition for 6-10 months in a cool room in my house. My apples, potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, and cabbage keep for months in my fridge or make-shift root cellar. Check out the page, Preserving Your Harvest, for more information on storing your crops.