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Eat your leftovers!

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Eat your leftovers!

Since living in France and surrendering utterly to my potager passion, I've become more and more committed to eating out of the garden only at all times of the year.  As much as possible, I try to avoid buying vegetables.  Of course, I frequently fall off my horse of virtue and indulge in winter eggplants or similar sins.  But, overall, i'd say that even in winter we're eating around 70% out of the garden.  From spring through fall, that rises to nearly 100%.  Not too bad.

I do freeze some green beans, berries, and Provence peaches and make a ton of jam, but when I say 'eat out of the garden,' I'm talking about fresh eating.  The truth is, I just don't like frozen green beans that much--not even my own.  I prefer fresh--either fresh out of the garden or fresh out of the root cellar (e.g. stored potatoes, apples, quinces, and pears).

But what's intriguing me more and more is just how many fresh vegetables manage to eke by through the winter right in the garden.  Of course, the obvious candidates are root crops, such as carrots and beets.  In my two potagers, located in western Normandie (about a USDA Zone 7) and in Haute Provence (don't think i can assign a USDA equivalent there), carrots come through most winters splendidly, even without mulch, only deteriorating in early spring when they start to send out small fibrous roots and their flavor and texture head distinctly south.

Both gardens usually suffer at least one severe cold spell of near 0 young overwinteed leeksdegrees Fahrenheit.  At this point, most of my winter salads are severely damaged, but not necessarily killed.  Beets that push out of the ground as they grow, such as 'Bull's Blood', usually turn to mush.  However, beets that stay entirely tucked underground, such as my favorite 'Crapaudine,' are undamaged by these temperatures as long as they don't last more than about 10 days.  Mature leeks are about 75% damaged by such a cold snap, but fall-planted leeks are entirely undamaged (see photo right taken about a week ago in early March).

The timing of our annual deep freeze makes a whopping difference in how much fresh eating we do each winter.  If it occurs late, we eat fabulous salads up until that point.  (Denis and I have agreed that the salads of winter are our favorites--distinctly better than summer greens.)  Then, there's only a brief pause until the damaged but not killed salads resprout, and shortly after that, early spring-planted greens take over.

overwintered chervilOne of the things I miss most in winter are my usual huge quantities of fresh herbs.  While both gardens supply me with fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage all year long, it's the annual or biennial herbs I miss most--especially parsley.  While my beloved parsley never survives the above-mentioned Deep Freeze, two delightful annuals do:  chervil (left) and cilantro (or coriander, below right).  Chervil is just amazingly cold hardy, and for this reason I always plant plenty of it in early fall for a winter-long supply.  Cilantro hugs the ground through overwintered cilantrothe cold months, making it less vulnerable to freezing than upright parsley.  Both are oh-so-welcome in January and February!

The grand prize winner for winter salads that persist through hard freezes is of course mâche, also known as lamb's lettuce or corn salad in the U.S.  This little plant forms ground-hugging rosettes of thin, shell-shaped leaves that don't even blink at mache0 degrees.  And it's so easy to grow, as long as you provide good drainage (easy if you garden in raised beds).  In early fall, simply scatter the seed over a previously cropped row or bed that has been raked smooth.  No need even to rake in the seed!  And presto, in about a month you'll have a mat of this delicious little salad green (which is actually an indigenous wild salad throughout Europe).

In mild winter areas, you can also enjoy the rich variety and fabulousItalian chicory flavor of the diverse Italian chicories through most or all of the winter.  In both my gardens, they provide bowl after bowl of prized, tangy greens until the Big Freeze.  These low temperatures usually nip the leaves nearly to the ground, but they begin re-growing the minute the weather moderates.  Endives of all stripes are priceless for their cold-hardiness.  Most of them are rather long-season greens (compared to lettuces) and so should be planted from after the solstice onward for fall and winter eating.  Including frisées and cornets (main photo above) will ensure you some of the most toothsome salads around that, even if they bite it during deep winter, will likely regrow now in very early spring--that most barren of garden periods.

chives early springAnother strategy for eating from your garden all through the winter is to include some perennial plants.  This is, admittedly, a lesser known domain of vegetable gardening and one that I am exploring actively.  In today's parlance, it's known as permaculture.  Of course, an obvious example of permaculture is a plant like chives (photo above left), a common perennial herb.  While chives persist until very late fall in both my gardens, they seem to find at least a short period of dormancy mandatory, and so I'm, sadly, forced to live chiveless for a couple of months each year.  But fortunately, they re-emerge extremely early, only to be simultaneously coddled and abused (that is, pinched off as soon as they show themselves) by their gardener--me.  For as long as they are present in the garden, they find their way into each and every bowl of salad or soup that I put on the table.  When they emerge in late winter (photo above), I coddle them by spreading a deep layer of manure around them so they'll sprout as vigorously as possible.  The chives--like everything in the onion family--grow astonishingly vigorously in my Provence garden, where they reach a meter in height!  When the tips of the new sprouts first show, I use my fingers to comb away the winterkilled foliage from the previous year and liberate the new growth.

But perennial salad and cooking greens are a trickier matter.  One of the best ways to find plants that will come back year after year--often emerging in extremely early spring--is to look among traditional wild salad plants. Most of these are either winter annuals (they germinate in fall and overwinter as a ground-hugging rosette of leaves; mâche is a perfect example) or biennials which self-sow easily (wild blue chicory is perhaps the best known).  But, surprisingly, some of the most satisfying permaculture plants are wildflowers.  One example is  Campanula rapulculoides, which overwinters as multiple rosettes of nearly fleshy, strap-shaped leaves which are mild and delicious in spring salads.  I've dedicated an entire bed to it in my Provence garden.  And in midsummer it rewards me with tall wands of sky blue bellflowers which are beautiful for cutting.  Another is Silene vulgaris, which is so plentiful in the meadows surrounding both my gardens that I don't bother to plant it.  It makes delicious cooked greens, and is covered with starry white blooms in summer.

So what do I mean by 'eat your leftovers?'  Early spring is a barren period for many of us in our potagers.  And yet--just as the wild birds suffer from hunger at this time of year when winter foods are exhausted and spring's bounty not yet unleashed--we too crave fresh vegetables at this time of year.  (That's what all those old-time 'spring tonics' were about!)  The best way to have plenty of edibles in your garden in early spring is to have fall-planted species or varieties that are as winter hardy as possible.  That way, you'll be eating the 'leftovers' of your fall gardening when early spring rolls around.

Here are the things my experiences have thus far taught me about how to have a bountiful garden of early spring 'leftovers':

     *For root crops, choose varieties that stay well below ground, rather than those that push their shoulders above the soil line.  They'll be better protected from hard freezes.

     *Plant mâche!

     *Relatively young plants often have a better chance of overwintering successfully than mature ones that have lasted through the summer.  Make a late July or early August outdoor seeding of winter-hardy leek varieties (such as 'Carentan').  Then transplant them in September.  They'll be much hardier than leeks you transplanted out in spring.

     *For winter and early spring salads, choose mainly from the endive family, supplemented by Asian brassicas plus arugula, both perennial ('wild') and annual.

     *Start experimenting with growing wild greens, which usually provide very early vegetation.

     *Coddle your early spring vegetables.  They're still shell-shocked from winter.  Make sure to water them regularly and copiously!  You'll be amazed at the difference simply watering makes.  Successive freezes and thaws heave the ground and leave lots of air spaces around the roots of overwintering plants, adding to their springtime stress.  They need to drink--deeply and often--to push out new growth.

     *Early spring is the optimal time to make the rounds with the manure barrow.  Dress your emerging spring greens in comfy and nourishing nests of manure.  They'll reward you with tender, succulent new growth!

     *In general, choose varieties for fall planting with characteristics that lend themselves to winter hardiness.  Plants with lush, upright, juicy leaves will perish quickly while those with drier, leathery leaves that hug the ground will persist.  A perfect example I observed this year concerned cabbages.  I had planted two varieties:  Feldenkraus, a pale green, tall, pointed head variety with loosely folded, thick juicy leaves, and Pontoise, with flattened heads of tightly folded, leathery leaves, burnished blue and purple.  The first crashed over winter; the second came through intact.  (Note:  blue or gray leaves are often hardier than bright green ones.)

     *Be alert and observant in your own garden.  Notice varietal differences in winter hardiness in your area and the effects your own practices have on overwintering success.  The garden itself is the best teacher!

Take a stroll through your potager right now and evaluate what--if anything--made it through the winter.  Water what did.  Then, eat your leftovers and plan for more this gardening year!

Provence potager early March


Products of Interest:
Savoy cabbage 'Pointoise'
Mache 'Verte de Cambrai'
Average to dry soils--Rampion bellflower
Arugula 'Roquette Sauvage'

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