Friday, January 27, 2012

Winter Blues.... & reds, greens, orange and purple.

That's right folks, those are the colors that could only mean Winter Gardening. Wow... it's amazing to me how many people believe the Garden season is over when the first killing frosts bite. We see our prize Tomato plants wither... melon vines shrivel ... Pepper plants drop their leafs ... cucumbers vines lay limp on the trellis .. I guess it's no wonder it seems hopeless to most. 

Well, the good news is, it's not over because we still have a "Sub-Season" from early autumn through early to middle winter. It's this span that we call the 'Winter Garden'. The crops we need to consider for the Winter Garden are Carrots and the Brassica family. Brassica and/or Brassicaceae is a genus of plants in the Mustard  Family which includes Cabbage common head and savoy, Chinese Cabbage loose leaf head such as Napa, Pak Choi, BroccoliCauliflowerBrussels Sprouts, Radishes common and Chinese Daikon style, Turnips, Rutabagas, KohlrabiKale, Collard Greens,  and of course Leaf Mustard - (American, and Chinese) varieties including Seed Mustard.

Now having presented the short list of Brassica for this discussion, I want to point out that some of these varieties are hardy only through the heavy frosting periods, while others are quite viable into the extended freeze periods.

Frost and/or Extended Freeze Tolerant.

Cabbage - common late head, and Chinese Leaf, especially Pak Choi. (Napa style are not as heavy frost tolerant). Cabbage is a great fall crop as most of the cabbage moths are gone by the time it is in it's prime. Until then however, use floating row covers or "low tunnels" to protect them from (cabbage worms) the devastating larva of the white cabbage moth.
Note: While frost is beneficial to flavor, Head Cabbage should NOT be allowed to freeze solid and thaw in the garden, this will only cause the head to Rot, thus wasting an otherwise prized edible. The same is true for Brussels Sprouts and Cauliflower.

Brussels Sprouts - The frost greatly improves the flavor of this wonderful Brassica. If your kids are hesitant with early crop Brussels Sprouts, they are sure to like post frost ones.
Like all Brassica They are very nutritious. Most varieties of Brussels Sprout are slow growing, so plant your starts a minimum of 65 days before first frost of autumn.

Broccoli & Cauliflower -  Broccoli will at times of heavy frost turn deep green with a purple hue and  white Cauliflower will buff brown or in the case of yellow and purple will darken in color, but is not harmed. Neither though, should be left for an extended freeze. 
The 'exception' being a particular type of Broccoli.  The Sprouting Broccoli and Rapini Broccoli which is in the Brassica Rapa (aka Raab) family. These types of broccoli produces 'Florets' instead of a main head and the leafs are also edible. These varieties produce in mid December while some must be overwintered before it produces in early March and April. The flavor is well worth the wait.

Kohlrabi - This is a plant that's a delight to grow. The clean mild flavor is reminiscent of a cross between Cabbage and Turnip. Very easy to grow and holds well in the garden even with the most sever frosts. Kohlrabi is my choice for the BEST coleslaw you will ever eat. The leafs are also edible and the nutrition value is similar to Cabbage. I personally plant ONLY one variety of Kohlrabi of the Gigante cultivar commonly named "Superschmelz". It's the only Kohlrabi that will attain very large sizes and NEVER become woody. Plant in August for an autumn and mid winter crop. 

Radishes - Nearly everyone enjoys radishes, and is a traditional early spring/summer crop. Although, radishes are adversely affected by mid summers heat and is usually abandon and forgotten. In the Grateful Garden the common radish is both a spring and very late autumn crop, while the Chinese varieties are never planted before late summer and early autumn. Both varieties are harvested as needed until the ground freezes which makes it impossible to pull or dig, they are left then till the first thaw for a wonderful extra early treat. The best varieties I have personally found for the winter crop that wont turn woody are German Giant, and the Chinese radishes, Winter Rose and the Daikon. Nearly all of the Daikon varieties can be left in the ground through winter. Of course it is always important to mulch heavily.

Now then, lets get into the Nutritional Powerhouse varieties.

Leaf Mustard - There is no better flavor in "greens" then Mustard after the frost. Some of my favorites are the oriental types such as 'Large Leaf Tong Ho' and the dwarf 'Ho Mi Z'. But let us not forget the all American favorite 'Green Wave'. Mustard greens are second only to Kale in their ability to lower Cholesterol. And they also have two unique Glucosinolate  compounds that act as cancer protection, Sinigrin and Gluconasturtiian.   Nearly all the Mustard's are fast growing and can be sown as late as 45 days before first autumn frost. I have picked Mustard greens after weeks of a hard freeze during a brief thaw and the center leafs were as fresh as can be. 

Kale - This Brassica should be in EVERY garden and a regular part of everyone's diet. It's very easy to grow and is perhaps one of the most nutritious Leaf Brassica that exists. Kale contains very high concentrations of Beta Carotene, Vitamins K, A and C, as well as Lutein and Zeaxanthin and is a good source of Calcium. Kale is also a source of the very potent anti-cancer agents, Sulforaphane and Indole-3-Carbinol. Kale is in the 'Extended Freeze' category because it will grow well into winter and it's not at all uncommon to remove snow to harvest the delectable leafs, especially when mulched. Kale comes in many different varieties  including the very beautiful ornamental Flowering Kale, all of which are edible.
My final thought on this, the greatest of leaf Brassica is, "Eat plenty of Kale, and when your done, eat some more".

OK... let move onto The King of Root Crops. Carrots, Carrots, and more Carrots. It may well be used in more of the worlds cuisine then any other vegetable as is with the onion and garlic. "Extremely Versatile" is the term that best describes this root.  It can be planted Spring,  Summer and Autumn. Carrots Overwinter very well and can be harvested during winter at any opportunity of a thaw. There is nothing tastier then Christmas Carrots, January Carrots, February Carrots... OK, OK you get the drift. Applying organic mulch is recommended for overwintering and it also helps when trying to dig an otherwise hard frozen ground. The health benefits of Carrots is well documented and known to most so I will spare you the reading. Carrots are a "must have" in the Winter Garden. 

Now onto The Queen of Root Crops, the Beet. Yes Beets, their nutritional value alone qualify them for distinction. As in Kale, Beets contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin which are essential to Macula (eye) health. But they are also EXTREMELY high in Betalain Pigments which include the very powerful compounds, Betanin and Vulgaxanthin which provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. Strong concentrations of these compounds are found in both red and yellow beets, and to a much lesser degree the colored stems of Swiss Chard and Rhubarb.  
Exuding a wonderful sweet yet earthy flavor, either fresh, steamed, baked, roasted, or pickled, beets are delicious and healthy. Also, the beet greens are an excellent addition to salads or cooked in combination with other greens . They are best sown in late mid summer and harvested after frosts. Although many varieties of beets can become woody if overwintered,  the heirloom variety "Flat of Egypt" overwintered will remain tender, sweet and juicy unto spring. 

Turnips & Rutabagas. These two wonderful roots were a staple in winter gardens of past generations. Although the roots themselves are primarily high only in Vitamin C. For the Rutabaga, 100g contain 25mg of Vitamin C, which is about 42% of the recommended daily dose. Turnips are comparable to that also. They both have a good mineral content. However the real benefit is in the HIGHLY NUTRITIOUS greens. Turnip greens contain up to 4 times the amount of Calcium then other Brassica and outscore cabbage, broccoli, and even the mighty Kale in Glucosinolate content. But here's the catch, it's this high Calcium and Glucosinolate content that makes these greens so bitter. Thus many people shy away from a highly nutritious food source. The answer to this dilemma it to mix the Turnip greens with other greens such as Mustard, Kale and Beet greens. This mix balances the compounds to a wonderful full flavored non-bitter power packed super food. Plant Turnips and Rutabagas in late mid summer. They can be left in the ground with heavy mulch, but most people harvest them before the hard extended freeze as they store quite well.

OK, I think that covers the great possibilities of the Winter Garden ... oh.. don't forget the Green Onions they are just the perfect accompaniment to a winter meal. I regularly uncover my stash of green onions growing under the straw mulch at the slightest hint of a winter thaw.
...... and remember even in the winter you can ..... go play in the dirt, it's fun.

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