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Eliot Coleman’s Discovery of Winter Gardening

In this excerpt from Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Garden All Year Long, expert natural gardener Eliot Coleman recounts his discovery of year-round gardening.

The traditional American vegetable garden begins in May and ends in October. For the rest of the year the frugal home-garden household must depend on shelves lined with canning jars and a well-stocked freezer. Our frugal household presents a different picture. We no longer can or freeze the summer vegetables so as to have them reappear all winter. By the time the season ends for our traditional summer garden, we are eating out of our untraditional winter garden, a garden that begins in October and ends in May.

We adore fresh food, what we call”rea1 food,” the fresher the better. We have never considered the many-month-old embalmed remains of last summer’s harvest, whether canned or frozen, to be real food. Real food, the most pleasing to the palate and, as nutritional science increasingly reminds us, the most beneficial to health, means unprocessed whole foods like freshly harvested vegetables with all the crisp, crunchy, flavorful nutrition intact. So, when the summer vegetables are in season, we feast on beans, corn, tomatoes, and squash fresh from our summer garden. But, what about winter? What do we eat here in Maine when temperatures are frosty and snow is deep? Surprisingly, we keep right on eating fresh, home-grown food.

Our winter garden contains cold-weather foods such as spinach, tatsoi, scallions, and arugula that are as adapted to cold as the summer vegetables are to heat. The concept of a winter garden sits on the landscape like an undiscovered treasure. Undiscovered, because it seems impossible in a climate like ours where the sharp reality of winter cold intrudes. But some of us don’t accept reality without pushing its boundaries. We started challenging Jack Frost years ago. We soon had harvests extending until late fall and harvests beginning by early spring. We wanted more. Could we continue until December? Could we begin again in February? What if we adjusted our planting dates? What if we added a little more protection? Each success led to another. Eventually, we brought the latest fall harvest and the earliest spring harvest together. Voilà, the end of winter!

The surprise of our winter garden (and yours, too) is how simple it is. Winter vegetables will thrive in any winter climate with a little protection from wind and weather. No heating or high-tech systems are necessary. The keys to success are a new attitude and new crops. To better establish these new concepts in the new world, we have consulted the old world where the French have a long tradition of winter gardens. Four-Season Harvest describes fifteen years of experience with four-season harvesting in our own garden, plus the new inspirations we gained during a January pilgrimage to the winter gardens of southern France. That combination is a harvest of unparalleled bounty for fresh-food lovers across the U.S.

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