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Celt's Garden - Getting Real About Winter Gardening

Just as a filthy cold spring is delaying planting the summer garden, it's time to get ready to plant your winter garden. The winter garden feeds you, your family, and possibly your laid off friends through next fall, winter and spring with fresh delicious veg. That eight months of food you grow yourself provides fresh food when it is most expensive and most likely to be imported from California, Mexico, China and Chile. Personally, I wish Chile all the best in a changing world, but tying a great chunk of their national prosperity to our continued ability and desire to buy air freighted perishables in midwinter deserves a rethink.

As Kenyan green bean and flower growers discovered when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew in Iceland and disrupted air freight for a week, it's a vulnerable business model. As Kenyans fed roses to cows by the truckload and scrambled to find closer markets for green beans (Kenyans don't eat green beans), Britons got a view of their supply chain that most people never notice. In Kenya, distributors struggled to stay afloat, growers were hit hard, field hands were laid off and had no pay packets to take home to momma. In Britain, eaters got an abrupt insight into just in time supply.

Despite all the publicity around local eating, we're not organizing our supply chain much differently from the British. I ran smack into that in November 2005, when I was gardenless. I was suddenly back to buying fresh food. Good ruddy luck buying winter vegetables from Washington, much less the Fourth Corner region, in a state that raises a good part of the world's supply of seed for winter vegetables. Yup, you heard me correctly. Washington State grows 50% of the world's cabbage, carrot, spinach, cauliflower, brussels spout and table beet seed, 40% of world radish seed and 20% of world onion seed. (Source: WSDA, dig around and you can find it.)

So I wander into the Co-op on a Tuesday in November and ask the nice lady in the produce section about local winter vegetables, seeing as all the chard, kale, onions, beets, spinach, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and suchlike are from California. First response: the local farmers want a vacation in winter after the summer growing season. Thinking of farmers I know who have winter jobs to keep it together, that sounded doubtful. Second response: not enough farmers. She was putting out two and a half cases of kale a day and local farms couldn't supply the volume. Winter vegetables don't grow around here because the farmers don't plant them. That makes sense: no market, no planting. Since we were standing in a market, I kept on it and got the third response: kale and suchlike doesn't grow around here in the winter time. Now, I had to tell her that I been eating kale out of a patio garden in Bellingham for five winters. By which time, wanting to get back to arranging the organic tomatoes from Chile and clearly fed up with idiots like me, she told me that if I wanted local winter vegetables I should grow them myself.

So back by the canned beans aisle I found Derek Long, who at that time was in charge of the Local Food and Farming initiative with Sustainable Connections and also on the Co-op board. I asked Derek about the shortage of local winter veg. Derek rolled his eyes, gave an exasperated snort, and said "Get real, Celt! What do you expect from us?"

Derek is normally a fairly easy going guy, so I took this as indicative of tripping over a larger issue.

In fact, I had tripped over the kale strand in a whole plate of organic vegetable production spaghetti. Just one piece of it is that the Co-op (and Terra Organica, which really tries hard to buy from local growers) has to make margin to stay in business, and making margin means adopting supermarket standards. Customers expect fresh tomatoes in midwinter and they don't expect to find a sign that says, "Sorry, all out of kale. Fred's Farm in Snohomish County will be sending a shipment Thursday."

Another piece is that the big growers in far away places can offer lower wholesale prices. Even with the paperwork for USDA organic standards jacking up the price and hysteria over illegal immigration (there is no other kind for Mexican farm workers, the legal immigration quota is zero) choking the supply of skilled agricultural workers, the big growers in California can offer a reliable volume at a lower price than local growers.

Even with the economies of scale for big growers, multiple subsidies to the energy industry to get the produce transported here, multiple subsidies to the water industry to grow irrigated vegetables in the desert, and considerable taxpayer subsidies for the overhead of organic certification programs and rest of the USDA, the stuff isn't all that cheap by the time it hits our shelves.

Growing your own is one answer. If you have some space that you can devote to a winter garden, it will save you beaucoup bucks. If you have 10-20 square foot per eater, you can have something fresh all winter. The storm in 2008 froze out my normally reliable winter garden, but even then it got growing again after a couple of months.

If you are growing your own starts, June is the time to get the heavy veg (leeks, cauliflower, winter cabbage, and brussels sprouts) started in little containers for transplant July-August. Kale tends to bolt in summer's heat and can wait another month. Beets, chard, bok choi, napa cabbage, Walla Walla onions and carrots are direct seeded in July. Winter spinach, mustard family greens, radishes and lettuce are direct seeded a bit every week July through September. Arranging some protection for tender greens will extend the season and give you fresh salads until it gets really cold.

The other option is to get to know your farmer. Attempts by producers to generate a market for the off season have failed miserably so far. Growing Washington kept the farm stand on Railroad Avenue open last fall until it was clear that it wasn't going to work. Various farmers have tried to offer extended season CSA's. That hasn't worked either. If we want local farmers to plant for us instead getting jobs bookkeeping and fixing cars, they need to feel comfortable that they have customers through the winter. We eaters will have to step up and make a commitment to buy consistently.

The longer season at the Farmer's Market is a step in the right direction. Talk to the farmers there and see what you can arrange. There are many more farmers in the area who aren't selling at the Farmer's Market. Look for them on the Farm Map, and by asking around. If you are out in the county, look for on-farm sales signs. The Smith Road is one long farm stand. There's a cluster around Ferndale, another around Everson, and a few down Highway 9 towards the county line.

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Comment by Toni Lyons on May 30, 2010 at 10:40am
Yes, we'll have to come up with compact racks for apartment drying, eh? I forgot about the green onions that also help bridge the spring onion-gap (this is probably different from the Union Gap?).
Comment by Celt M. Schira on May 29, 2010 at 11:41pm
Thank you very much, Walter! In barnless urban gardening terms, that would be leave the onions sitting around laid out on newspapers in the dining room for a goodly while.
Comment by Toni Lyons on May 29, 2010 at 3:59pm
Yes, we have a few shallots left and the storage onions were actually pretty darn good to the last one. Walter says he'll just have to plant more this year. The leeks just gave out last week! Vive les chefs de france!
Comment by Celt M. Schira on May 29, 2010 at 11:12am
Onion supply in spring is a right challenge. Every way I've tried to store onions over the winter, they still go soft and sprouty by March. I either run out or have to compost what's left, and either way I end up buying onions from California until summer.
French traditional cooking uses leeks to bridge the gap between the stored onions and the new crop. I grow some, but that's more leeks (and more onions) than I have space for.
Another thought is to grow hard Dutch yellow shallots, which are excellent keepers.
Comment by Toni Lyons on May 29, 2010 at 10:35am
Oh, and by the way, I forgot to add that Walter has tried to sell his produce to the Co-op, local restaurants, grocery stores, etc. etc. and can verify all of the experiences Celt discusses. We started a farmers' market in Ferndale that took a turn in a non-productive direction (may it prosper), tried selling at the B'ham Farmers' Market, etc. None of these options support the growth of local farming enough to make a difference. Significant changes will most likely occur only through pressures from the economy and the environment. We're just doing what we can every day to increase the chances that real food will continue to be available. Anyone growing food in his/her own garden is doing the same by not only changing habits, but also increasing the pool of knowledge we will all certainly need to draw on in the coming years. Keep it up!
Comment by Toni Lyons on May 29, 2010 at 10:25am
Thank you, Celt, for your wonderfully pragmatic exposition! Here at FA Farm in Ferndale, we feed ourselves all winter on our potatoes, storage onions, garlic, fresh kale, apples, leeks, winter squash, mustard greens, turnips, carrots, parsnips, fennel bulbs (this year through November) and the canned and frozen vegetables we've put by all summer. We have calculated the food we grow contributes about 55% of our food budget, and it would be a lot higher if we didn't indulge in beer, wine, tea, ice cream, cheese, chocolate and other luxuries. We buy a quarter of a grass-fed cow every other year from our friend in Ferndale, eggs from other neighbors and an occasional chicken from folks within a five-mile radius. We often trade vegetables for at least part of the cost of these items. (I pay for my ballet lessons in produce, right now mostly chard and early salad greens. Our local ballet master is getting healthier!) We buy very few veggies from stores year-round. We've had to buy a bag or two of storage onions this spring to get us through till mid summer. They're terrible! Walter helps feed my grown children and anyone else smart enough to ask for food during the winter months. Our neighbors for the most part have never bought a thing from us, although they drive by us every day on their way to the supermarket where they buy their few tasteless fruits and veggies from California, Mexico, Chile, et. al. at the same price they could pay for veggies we would pick in front of their eyes which are packed with minerals, vitamins and other terrific nutrients that would save them the money they spend on supplements purchased from the Rite Aid on the way.
We save much of our own seed, trade seed and seedlings with Celt, have an extremely low carbon footprint and even trade food for farm work. Come see us! Walter will show you how it's done.
We love you, Celt! I'm off to pick chard, orek and greens so I can go to my Saturday ballet class.
Comment by Celt M. Schira on May 28, 2010 at 10:46pm
Heather, you sweetie! I have some things growing for seed as well. I hope to trade you for the leek seed. Leeks are subject to severe inbreeding depression, so they are a challenge to save.
Comment by Heather K on May 28, 2010 at 8:56pm
Great local story and so true!

The ease of growing kale through the winter is amazing...and the prices the markets sell if for as an import incredibly high! I was surprised to find baby greens in the store yesterday at my favorite T.O. market from CA instead of Whatcom!

I'm in agreement- grow your own winter greens and communicate with favorite farmer on how to obtain winter vegi's from them.....and when anyone calculates their carbon footprint, I hope they include the transpo & cooling costs from the food they eat and each item from China they purchase.

My leeks made it all through the winter...I'm letting a few go in hopes to catch a few seeds, and I'm planting some baby leeks soon for next winters harvest since they are biannuals...maybe next spring I'll be able to plant my own leek seeds!
Soon enough it will be time to catch some seeds from my just-past-flowering kale that grew all last autumn and made it through the winter like a queen, and I'll also catch some seeds from the flowering chives to share too.

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