I am finding long-season crops more and more satisfying to grow. Shade in my garden doesn’t matter as much once the trees have dropped their leaves. And the pace of activity imposed by the slow vegetables is more forgiving if I miss a week or two when planting or harvesting.
I define long season varieties to be plants in the ground over the winter, either getting started for the next growing season in the spring, or providing harvestable vegetables through the cold season. There are four basic categories of plants that lend themselves to long season gardening. These are the hardy winter root crops, wintering alliums, wintering cole crops and hardy greens.
My favorite winter root vegetables are parsnips. They lend themselves better than any other root crop I know to storage through the winter in the ground. The only problem with this is that digging parsnips in frozen ground in January is cold work, impossible in colder places. I try to choose a nice sunny afternoon every so often in the middle of the winter to wrest a few roots from the frozen muck.
There are many things you can do with parsnips, but one of my favorites is just roasting the roots in the oven to bring out the sweetness. Many a day I have taken “leg-o-parsnip” to work for lunch.
Rutabagas are another good winter root crop that can keep in the ground after frost. I’ve got a bunch of these in the garden this winter, so will see how they do as the season gets colder. Ellen likes to make soups in the winter, and rutabagas are a great addition.
There are many other long season brassicas besides rutabagas. In the garden now I have Brussels sprouts, overwintering cauliflower, kale, broccoli, and some collards that are now going into their second winter. The cool season is best for these crops. In the summer they are fighting with aphids and cabbage caterpillars, but with the cool weather the pests are gone and the plants are still growing.
The third major category are the long season alliums. Garlic gets planted in late October, as do some varieties of overwintering onions. I planted some Walla Walla sweet onion starts a few weeks ago which will be my first experiment with overwintering onions. Leeks through the year have become a reliable winter staple.
Part of the fun of long season crops is that they naturally lend themselves to seed saving. When the overwintered crops start growing again in the spring, they are ready to reproduce. Last year I had a few extra leeks in the ground that produced an abundant crop of seed this year. The bees loved the beautiful pompoms.
The hardy greens category include swiss chard, some hardy spinach, kale, and mache. Swiss chard will last well into the fall and the crowns will tolerate moderate freezes and still come back in the spring with vigorous early spring greens. Last year I had a few plants of Winter Giant spinach which surprised me by surviving our unseasonable cold snap that killed the swiss chard. The winter greens don’t grow very much through the winter, but they can be the first fresh green thing from the garden in the early spring when they are really appreciated.