Winter garden

A mild fall has resulted in robust cool weather vegetable growth throughout the county. Pictured here are collards in a Crabtree garden.

My long time friend and fellow organic gardener, Lalla Ostergren, used to say, “My garden is a year round project.” Her favorite gardening activity in December was beginning the plan for next years garden. First she would review her garden notebook, and map, from the past year, making notes of what succeeded and what didn’t. Then as the first gardening catalogs arrived, she would pour over pictures and descriptions. And then began making lists of what to order and where in the garden to plant, how much space would be needed and how much seed to buy. By the end of December, she would have a completed map of her new garden plan, including crop rotations, and have ordered all her seed.

While I have never matched her productivity, I did catch her enthusiasm. As a result, I am now a year round gardener. And my favorite December gardening activity is buying gardening gifts for friends and family who garden. There are numerous options to be found online, although knowing what they really want is the only way to bring a beautiful smile to avid gardeners face when they open your gift. Most are happily willing to share their passion and babble on at great length if you show a little interest. Ask a few innocent questions and you’ll know exactly what they want before they know it.

Meanwhile, back in the garden, as of this moment, apparently my tomatoes will continue to develop, somehow having escaped the only brief freeze we have had so far this season. Neighbors have shared similar stories, which emphasizes a point. When the falls are mild it’s worth the effort of covering crops during the first freeze or two. Our average first frost is mid October and it is now almost December. That’s six weeks of extra growth which can result in dozens of extra tomatoes before the season closes.

The mild autumn has also accelerated cool weather crop development, causing some to go to seed earlier than normal. But otherwise, county gardens are producing big batches of kale, collards, Swiss chard, beets, turnips, mustard, cabbage, spinach, tatsoi, bok choy, carrots, lettuce and radishes. Most of these will have no problem with the dip into the 20s predicted this weekend, and still thrive on for weeks to come. Don’t forget to water and fertilize when needed. But go easy on the nitrogen in your fertilizer mix as it can reduce cold hardiness.

Place the crops you are trying to overwinter in the sunniest locations in your garden. Remember that the sun’s angle in the sky is much lower in the winter. Parts of Lalla’s main garden would be shaded by her two story house by the end of November and stay that way into February, making it a poor location for overwintered crops.

Other activities for December include planting spring flowering bulbs. As long as you can work the soil with a shovel it’s not too late to plant. And add fertilizer to existing bulb beds for better blooms in the spring.

Use the last of those fall leaves as mulch or in the compose pile. Running a mower over them first allows rain to pass through when used as mulch and helps them to decompose faster in the compost pile.

Don’t forget to turn your compost pile regularly. That will help it decompose more quickly, turning it into the “brown gold” all gardens love.

Clean up the garden. Remove or burn dead and diseased foliage.

Don’t forget the Jerusalem artichokes. Since they don’t store well in the refrigerator it’s best to just dig them up as you need them. That’s easy to forget since all the top growth dies back in the winter. I have my patch marked with stones and a little flag to remind me where they are. If you’re not familiar with this plant you should be. They are not from Jerusalem and they are not related to globe artichokes but they are super easy to grow and very healthy. Also known as sunchokes, or earth apples, they are a knobby root vegetable with lots of fiber, potassium and iron. And since they have blood sugar balancing properties, are used by diabetics as a potato substitute. It has also been suggested they can be good for persons with high cholesterol. Once they get established in a good location very little maintenance is needed.

Now is a good time to have your soil tested. There is plenty of time to add amendments that will improve the quality of your soil and the productivity of your spring garden.

Check and clean your garden tools. Oil wooden handles. Is there anything that needs replacing? Maybe you can drop some hints around people who might buy you a gift.

Geraniums and coleus can be trimmed and the stems rooted in a glass of water for new plants. Begonia pieces 1 to 1 1/2 inches long can be gently pressed into moistened potting soil. Give them high humidity and keep them in a warm, well-lit spot out of direct sunlight until roots begin to form.

While the memories are still fresh, make notes about what did and didn’t work in the garden this year and why. Keeping your notes from year to year can help you spot trends that can be helpful in heading off problems and repeating successes. Consider buying a garden journal or put it on your gift list.

There will be plenty of nice days this winter to build season extenders. A cold frame can be as simple as four boards nailed together on the ground covered by an old window. Seed can be started early in these for the spring garden. There are numerous plans for and places to order season extenders on the internet.

Or keep it simple with sheets, blankets and plastic as protective coverings. Many cool weather crops will survive mild winters here with just thick layer of mulch. All these covers need to be removed, or pulled back regularly, on mild winter days, for best growth. Good air circulation makes for healthier plants.

Some say this all seems like a lot of work. I say the ability to have fresh vegetables to eat all winter, grown with my help and hands, is worth the effort. A recent issue of Consumer Report said pesticide reside was found on a large portion of produce tested from supermarkets. I know what goes on my produce at home and since I use organic methods, the very little bit of organic pesticide I use breaks down quickly in the environment and is long gone by the time my veggies reach the dinner table. The same can not be said for factory farms where widespread chemical use is regular and persistent.

My friend Lalla always said working in her organic garden and eating her organic produce contributed greatly to her wellbeing, peace of mind and longevity. My experience is becoming increasingly similar.

You’re invited to return to Lalla’s garden next month, right here, in the Democrat.

“Lalla’s Garden” by Lalla Lee Ostergren, was published in the Van Buren County Democrat from May 2008 to December of 2010. Before she passed away last year she asked me to keep her message alive. – Jeff

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