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Cold comfort. Review: The Winter Harvest Handbook

Fall Garden With Cold Frame
Cold weather gardening is within your reach. Resilience compels it. Photo: Barbara Damrosch.

Every gardener knows the thrill of gardening season coming upon them.

Nigh about January, when those seed catalogs start rolling in, the imagination lets loose its longings, dreaming of the joy of watching the garden take shape, of favorite vegetables growing and the recipes they inspire, and of new plantings, experiments with life's mystery and bounty.

The season, feeling too short in most places, becomes a condensed element of time in the year. It's the window where a relationship to nature and the cycles of life are given urgent priority.

I know what that's like, and I love it too.

A year-round sport

But some gardeners see it differently. They're in it for the long haul, planting cold weather crops in the fall and early spring, perhaps aided by a cold frame or small greenhouse, perhaps just by watching for frosts and acting accordingly, or perhaps taking a chance on what makes it what doesn't, no matter how small the crop of vegetable size.

To the rest of us, winter gardening can feel like too much of a mystery.

But I got to thinking about how the implications of peak oil — most of all its probable appearance as crisis at an unexpected moment — and why that means resilience must now be a four-season sport.

So this year I planned to do a cold frame in my ridiculously tiny garden plot. That didn't pan out so I did the next best thing, which was to plant some early season cold crops—Romaine, Collards, Broccoli, and Cauliflower in pots. So far, so good.

Easy as one, two, three

But I've set my sites on next winter now. I want full-throttle year-round food resilience beginning with my own gorgeous produce crop in the dead of winter. And no book has better prepared me to take on that task than The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses.

Written by Eliot Coleman and published by Chelsea Green, the book inspires, informs, and makes winter food production seem more than possible, whether on a small scale, like me, or for all those Greenhorns out there who are taking up farming as a true profession.

In addition to offering planting and harvest schedules, the book also leads off by calling on three elements as the key to success. And when you break things down to three key elements it just seems so much less scary, like you can do it if you just make sure to check these things off.

The winter harvest, as we practice it at Four Season Farm, has three components: cold-hardy vegetables, succession planting, and protected cultivation.

See what I mean? That I can handle.

A bloody good allotment

The author farms in Maine, so he draws many of his own examples from gardening conditions in Zone Five. But by following their gridded planting and harvest schedule, you can modify by doing a small amount of research and kind of filling in the blanks on what will work for where you are.

Coleman also has his own terms for cold and cool greenhouses — by which he means low temperatures — 32° F and 45°F respectively. He also speak liberally about greenhouses,

I use the term greenhouse, high tunnel, tunnel greenhouse, and hoop house interchangeably to refer to the pipe-frame, plastic-covered, translucent structures in which we grow plants.

Winter Harvest
The Winter harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses by Eliot Coleman, Chelsea Green, 247 pp, $19.77.

This is helpful because for many of us who seek resilience, and are ready for year-round planting and harvesting, the size and scope that The Winter Harvest allows for (full-scale professional greenhouse production) can be modified down to suit your rural or urban homestead, or even your simple garden plot. So don't let the book's focus on larger scale greenhouses deter you. In fact, the book can help you get started at a home scale, but leave open that opportunity to scale up should circumstances, the economy or your own desire compel it.

Le jardin

These days, looking forward to building more future resilience often means looking backward, to when families and communities did more things themselves. Prepping old school style is the key to peak oil not hitting quite so hard in your own life.

That we, as a general rule, have largely lost so much knowledge and so many skills surrounding gardening is tragic. That's why I loved the section on Historical Inspiration.

The information on gardening production in the book is not exotic, doesn't cost a fortune in investments, and has its roots in what's been done for centuries. We can do today what was always done in the past. It just requires that you tune in...and move Bird By Bird, as they say.

If year-round production of fresh local vegetables is your goal, and if you like the idea of being small-scale and space efficient, then you will find no model more inspiring that that of the Parisian growers of 150 years ago. La culture maraîchère (market gardening) in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century was the impressive result of years of improvement in both protected and outdoor vegetable production. The earliest developments in season extension (using primitive predecessors of the cold frame) had begun in the royal potager (vegetable garden) at Versailles under the celebrated head gardener La Quintinie in the 1670s and 80s. Those early beginnings reached their impressive climax in the hand of the Parisian maraîchers (market gardeners) between 1850 and 1900.

Well, Vive la France!

The historical section goes on to relay the key elements and techniques, telling how the techniques jumped to Britain, and why the system is relevant and doable in the 21st century. In a world where doing anything for one's self is often posited as out of reach due to a need to rely on advanced technology, or because it's the domain of studied experts, this type of historical contextualization can make the difference between what is exotic and remote and what is and can be a part of anyone's life.

It's all about the "how to"

The book begins with the basics — getting started, soil preparation, compost, a variety of greenhouse structures — and then includes more complex topics like insect control, weeds, and plant diseases. In between is a trove of straightforward information for anyone who wants to take their food resilience to the next level.

I could see The Winter Harvest Handbook being especially helpful to those community gardeners who bemoan the season's end, and the breaking up of participants until next spring. They are the ones who believe it's possible to keep the garden going year-round with some temporary structures and a little will, but they often get voted down. This book helps make the case.

It's also a truly invaluable resource for those scaling up to more marketable production, with tips on greenhouse design, veggie packaging, and even marketing ideas.

Enthusiastically recommended by such luminaries as Michael Pollan and Martha Stewart, this is a book that every vegetable gardener and resilience-minded peak oiler is going to want on their shelf. With fabulously inspiring photos by Barbara Damrosch.

--Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

* Also see Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.

Editorial Notes: Lindsay Curren is Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice, the online magazine on peak oil. She also writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog, and co-founded Occupy Parenting. Follow her on Twitter @LindsaysList.

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