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What to grow in 2023?

January 4, 2023

I spent my day off wage-work puttering about in the basement cold storage and putting my calendar in order. I had to throw out a little food. One always does, I suppose. I mean, as soon as it is detached from the plant the seed casing begins to rot away. That’s its job. It’s your job to try to prevent that. There were a few apples and a couple winter squash that had managed to find the decomposing microbes. What I threw out was food I bought though, not food from my garden. I was a little pleased with that.

My garden veg is not rotting, but it’s also not going to feed me for the rest of the winter. It’s mostly gone. I’ve used most of a bin of carrots and onions each and all the potatoes. I sort of thought that would keep me going for several months. I guess it did. But I didn’t account for how many months there were in the cold season here in central Vermont. Nor for holiday cooking. The carrots are down to a thin scattering of rather desiccated roots, the lumpiest and ugliest of the crop. The onions are all tiny and are trying to sprout. Maybe I should just bury them all out in the garden and see what happens. Perhaps I could get seed from them.

Or maybe the remainder is just compost. Only that is developing its usual winter problems also. When you clean up the garden in autumn, the compost bins get filled. If the temperatures then quickly plunge to winter cold, the compost bins do not make much compost. There is rotting in the basement and a lack of it in the compost piles. (Maybe they need to trade places?… um… no.) This week’s pail of kitchen scraps and the few bad apples and squash filled the bins to overflowing. The weather is supposed to remain above freezing for a while this week. With luck, perhaps the microbes in the rotting apples will get busy on all the other compost, particularly the brush and grass that apparently just doesn’t appeal to decomposers except as a last resort. Stems and stalks take forever to break down. But the compost pile turns into stinky slime if it doesn’t have all that dry carbon to balance the nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps and veg leftovers.

So as I was already grousing about the pantry, I decided to review my garden plan for next year… and found it woefully inadequate.

That happens every year. Every fall, I go through my notes on what happened in the garden and make up a plan for the next year based on what worked and what didn’t. It seems like this would be a cut and dried sort of process, but no, I change my mind about a dozen times before actually putting seed in the ground. I do manage to keep the nightshades and squashes from being planted in the same places each year, so I guess the planning works. Sort of. But this year I left out some crucial data. I made up the plan before my experiment with cold storage had played itself out. I think there are issues.

This is the first year that I’ve really used cold storage. In the past, I’ve canned things, pickled things, frozen things and made gallons of chutneys and preserves. But I’ve never just tried to keep the veg in its raw and most nutritious state. I’ve never had the space. Being a book-nerd I read and reread every book I could find on yield and storage capacity for different types of produce. And I took notes on what I used going into the pot each week. Garlic. Squash. Onions. Carrots. Potatoes & sweet potatoes. Chiles. Beans. (That’s about the extent of my diet, along with oatmeal, which I can’t grow here…) The roots are all easily stored. Summer squash, you just have to eat or turn into baked goods. But winter squash also store fairly well. That’s how they got the name, after all. They keep all winter. In any case, I thought I had a plan. I pulled together some bins and shelving. I planted what I thought would last for months. Aside from the sweet potatoes, the garden was about as productive as I expected. And yet…

Now it’s January and I’m down to lumpy carrots and sprouting onions.

So I need a better plan.

I think this year, I’m going to try sweet potatoes again, but this time I’ll start them much earlier under row cover. The vines were so healthy. I’m fairly sure that if the frost had held off, I would have had a good bushel of yummy orange roots. Which would, in turn, have given me much more in the stew pot in early winter. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to use so many carrots. And all the potatoes. So there is one very big change to the garden plan because I had written off sweet potatoes as a lost cause in Vermont and did not allow for space. (Filled that bed with cabbage… I don’t actually like cabbage all that much…)

I also need to plant about three times as many potatoes. I ran out a couple weeks ago. I could find varieties with higher yield or larger tubers, I suppose. But I really like my Adirondack blues and this yellow-fleshed butterball called Charlotte (both can be found at the Maine Potato Lady). They keep well and are a good size for a single person. And so tasty! They both seemed happy in the garden this year. So I don’t want to change. (Though there’s this Fenway Red…) Which means I need to allocate more space to the spuds.

However, space is not something I have in abundance. But maybe I can rethink my relationship with squash. I’ll be the first to cheerfully admit that I grow far too many. Both summer and winter. All the varieties. I even grow useless gourds. I just love them all so much, you see. So much color. So many strange shapes and textures. And so much flavor! But if I’m going to be growing food and not fun (or maybe just a little fun…), then I need to cut out some of the squash. So this year, I think I’ll put the summer squash in the hügelkultur mounds with the winter squash, move the gourds out of the veg patch, and plant far fewer of all of it. Just one zucchini plant is enough… Have to keep telling myself that because somehow when it comes around to planting time, I always forget the cricket bats I was exasperatedly pulling out of the bed every week because nobody can keep up with more than one plant’s worth of zuke-level fecundity.

Then I have a whole bed for potatoes. Even so, I think I’ll plan on also buying a large sack from some farm around here next fall. That ought to get me to February at least. Maybe even March. Which is when the over-wintering veg is about ready for harvest. It will mean a few months without potatoes, but I don’t tend to eat as much potato in the spring and early summer anyway. That’s when I’m binging on asparagus and fresh spinach and strawberries!

One final big alteration to the plan is that I need to admit that I’m just not very good at growing dried beans. I grow very good bean plants. Huge vines or bushes with lovely deep green leaves (just ask the groundhog, I do excellent bean foliage…). And the flowers are so adorable. But then they fade… and I forget. Or get bogged down in zucchini. By the time I remember to look again, the pods are dried — which is great! — but they’re also cracked open with beans scattered everywhere — which is not so great. Though it does make for surprise free bean plants every year…

In any case, I might stick to buying dried beans in the bulk foods bins at the co-op. Apparently there are plenty of local farmers growing everything I would want, so perhaps I’ll just depend on the professionals. They even have black turtles, which is really the only necessary bean for me anyway. That will free up quite a bit of space in which I can grow more carrots and onions. And perhaps, because I never just do one thing, I can probably still grow some vining shelling bean up a trellis in the middle of the bed. (There’s this variety of a cannellini-looking thing called the Lazy Housewife… seems necessary…)

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who is storing roots in the cellar. How often do your plans work out? I know I’m just the legs and opposable thumbs in this garden organism, but sometimes I like to think I might be in charge… sort of… It’s hard to be reminded in January that all these plans are just so much delusion of grandeur…

But then, that happens in July in the zucchini patch as well. Should be used to it, I suppose…


Teaser photo credit: Root cellar with crops. By Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: gardening, self-provisioning