June 27, 1997
I well remember how I first started winter vegetable gardening. My wife and I had been in our house for about a year, after living in the city for more than a decade (first as college students, then as 9-to-5ers). It was my second vegetable garden at the house, with the usual corn, lettuce, store-bought tomato plants, and a dozen zucchini (I won't try to defend that, but I know I'm not the only one to grow too much summer squash!). One day a coworker brought me in an old catalog from a local seed merchant. "You might be interested in these guys, they carry a lot of neat varieties for our area", he said.
That night I opened up the catalog, and began to read. A new world began to open up to me! They talked about carrots that could be harvested in January, sweet broccoli that was ready to eat in March, and year-round supplies of lettuce and spinach. I also noted, to my chagrin, it was a bit late for me to be starting a number of these items; but I pulled out my Visa, got on the phone, and called up Territorial Seed Company.
The man who answered the phone was a gardener himself, and patiently answered a myriad of questions. He also filled me in on their current offerings, and helped me select winter vegetables that would work for me; both as a beginner, and with a late start to boot! After finding out that this was to be my first winter garden, he personally made sure all the seeds were in stock, and would go out that very afternoon (I recall him making several trips to the seed warehouse during our conversation).
It was just a few days later that the seeds arrived. I was so excited! Since my summer garden was in full swing, with no room allotted for the winter stuff, I had to squeeze more rows into the available space (I hadn't yet learned the advantages to raised beds). Much of the new vegetables where a foot or less from the old vegetables, but I was determined to make it work!
The vegetables sprouted, and grew like mad. I must've read through the Territorial catalog several dozen times, trying to absorb every possible nuance of culture for this new garden. I waited impatiently, longing for summer to end (yes, I was sick).
Finally, summer turned to fall. The beets and carrots were fighting for space, and the kale was overshadowing everything within two or three feet of itself. My sprouting broccoli plants were a couple feet tall, and looking wonderful to my eyes. I spent a good number of October weekends just sitting in my garden, feeling proud of this accomplishment.
Then, the first good frost hit. I remember waking up, and looking out my window; first at the frosty grass, then to my vegetable garden. But something was wrong! My plants were obviously dead! I ran out there and wandered around the garden with a sick feeling inside. What had I done wrong? I had to go to work that day, but I just felt horrible.
That evening, as I drove home, I ran through everything in my mind, over and over. Had I misunderstood the plants' cultural requirements? Did I pull some bonehead maneuver (not an unknown item in my life)? Had I been cheated? I pulled into the driveway, and saw the garden - the plants were alive! Everything looked normal! How could this be? (Note: At this time I had absolutely no knowledge of plant survival mechanisms. I was just gardening on adrenaline). I resolved to learn more, and added Steve Solomon's book "Gardening West of the Cascades" to my Christmas list.
We had several more frosts that fall, and each time I had to reassure myself that the plants would come back (which they did, without fail). Then the fun began: Harvesting! Having never pulled a carrot out of cold ground before, I had no idea how good they could taste! The kale and Brussels sprouts were like totally different vegetables! WHY WASN'T EVERYONE DOING THIS?
I've been growing a winter vegetable garden for seven years now, and still I find myself asking that question. Some people certainly live where it is too cold to have a winter garden, but many vegetables are much hardier than they think (for example, lettuce can live down into the mid 20s Fahrenheit). In fact, here in western Washington, the constant winter rain is a bigger problem than cold. Check out my winter gardening page to get some ideas; maybe you can be a winter vegetable gardener too!
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This page was last updated November 18, 2013