productive fall and winter vegetable gardens, with niki jabbour
I’M A BELIEVER in succession sowings, and regularly spread the message of fall harvests and other vegetable-garden second chances. But Niki Jabbour…well, she puts me to shame, with not just multiple summer sowings and then September or October salads and kale and peas to pick, but a list of 30ish cold-season crops she can harvest after that, from November through March–even in her Nova Scotia backyard (roughly equivalent to USDA Zone 6).
I guess that’s why she titled her 2011 book, “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live.”
Niki’s vegetable garden in Halifax just got a facelift to become even more productive. She is one of the contributors to the blog Savvy Gardening and creator of the award-winning radio program, The Weekend Gardener, that’s heard throughout Eastern Canada. And we spoke just in time for all of us us to order the seeds and learn the tactics we’ll need to grow our own offseason gardens, too.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 8, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. Learn the top crops to stretch into winter, and the gear you’ll need (much of it simple DIY solutions, in fact).
my 365-day vegetable-garden q&a with niki jabbour
Q. I’m feeling as if this is a really good year for talking “offseason” edible gardens, because many of us are experiencing—as the world is experiencing—unfamiliar or harsh conditions in the usual “growing season.” I’ve been extra-hot, extra-dry, and sometimes I just couldn’t coax certain second sowings to germinate and thrive. So maybe the cooler part of the year is an opportunity? Are you having any changes there yourself?
A. It’s definitely been hot and dry, and the garden is starved for rain.
Q. Me, too.
A. But that’s not totally atypical for this time of year. It can be hard because this week I am sowing carrots, for fall and winter harvesting, and it is hot and dry. In the book I included all these fun little ways to get around the hot, dry summer.
For instance, I use my grow-lights all summer long for succession plantings, and I am still using them now to start all my cold-season cabbages, and kohlrabis, and even leeks for fall and winter harvesting, and more hardy herbs and greens.
So it kind of helps me overcome the hot, dry weather of summer. Some things don’t want to germinate, or it’s a lot of work to be out watering two or three times a day. If you start them indoors, you don’t have to worry about that.
Q. I love that. I always put my light stand away, and I think, “How silly am I?” [Laughter.]
A. It can save you a lot of money. No nurseries I have ever found sell good-quality, fresh seedlings for succession planting after like early July.
Q. I love that your “Year-Round” book starts with the sentence, “It all started with a row cover.” [Laughter.] Now that’s not your only current piece of season-extending gear, by a long shot, I know. What’s the range to the tricks of your trade up there?
A. Row cover was eye-opening for me, and I still use it. Even now in the garden I am using shade cloth. I generally use row cover to extend the season in spring and fall. You can generally extend the season by four to six weeks.
Then I also use mini-hoop tunnels, which I make inexpensively, which go over my beds. My beds are all raised beds, which makes season extension a snap. And then I use cold frames, which are like magic boxes that extend your season very easily and efficiently, and make winter harvesting easy, which is nice.
And then the easiest way to extend your season is mulch. I gather lots and lots of leaves—even my neighbors’ and my sister’s; everybody gathers leaves for me. I get all these mulched leaves and it’s a treasure. Those go over the top usually in late November. I’ll mulch my carrots, my celeriac or celery roots, my beets—they all get mulched and we can harvest all winter long. [Using metal mini-hoops to hold up the tunnels, from Niki’s blog.]
Q. So it keeps the soil from freezing solid it stays diggable, right?
A. Yes, and you can use straw as well. One year I actually thought I’d be clever, and I had some straw bales. I thought, “I’ll put a straw bale on top of my carrots, and that will be like the super-easiest mulch ever.” I didn’t realize the straw bale would literally freeze to the soil and I could never pry it off in winter.
Q. I was going to say: I’m seeing this solid glacier, this iceberg made of straw. [Laughter.] So a foot and a half of loose straw or leaves, and cover it with row cover—or even an old “Star Wars” bed sheet to hold that mulch down and in place [use rocks to hold down the sheet]. Then you can lift it and harvest whenever.
Now, did you say “Star Wars”?
A. For sure.
Q. It has to be “Star Wars” for it to work, for the correct thermal value?
A. Pokemon works OK; it doesn’t have to be “Star Wars,” but something of that genre. It just adds a little fun to the garden.
Q. OK, I’m writing this down so I get the right stuff. [Laughter.]
A. Any old bed sheet will do.
Q. So I need some “Star Wars” bed sheets, and I need a “magic box,” a.k.a. a cold frame.
A. And with a cold frame, you don’t have to build one if you’re not handy. You can use straw bales in a square or rectangle around certain crops, and then cover it with an old window or door, something like that. You don’t have to build new things to be a cold-season harvester; you can use things that are around you as well.
Q. I had a cold frame years ago, and it finally fell apart. That happens every couple of decades.
A. It happens. [Laughter.]
Q. Yours are made from wood. What’s the proportion you like for a cold frame? How deep, wide, tall? Is it set into the ground?
A. I found what works best for me is a 3 by 6 foot cold frame. I tried 4 by 8, but the tops are so heavy to lift. I tried 2 by 4 and 2 by 3, but they’re just too small to plant. So 3 by 6 is the perfect size cold frame. I can pack a whole lot of food into that space.
Mine are made of hemlock, which is a local, untreated wood that I buy that’s very rot-resistant. It’s very heavy if you buy the boards; very dense. It’s much cheaper than cedar, which is also great but just more expensive.
Those planks are 2 inches thick, and the backs of my cold frames are about 18 inches tall and the fronts are about a foot. I tend to bury them, since my existing soil can be poor, so I remove the existing soil and add a nice mixture of my own compost and good soils to it.
Q. And you’re right: the 3 by 6 is a great idea. Even though it’s efficient, because you’re using 8-foot lumber, the 4 by 8 is a hefty thing to lift.
A. I don’t use glass for the top, either. I learned that when glass breaks, it’s not easy to pick out of the soil. I switched to a hard double polycarbonate material [like Lexan]. You can buy it at various home improvement warehouses and garden supply centers. It’s 8 mil thick and gets 90 percent light retention. But it’s also very insulating because of the twin-wall material.
It’s more expensive than the free glass window on the side of the road, but they tend to last about 12 years for me, and they don’t break, and they work well for me.
Q. We just had a Cold Frame 101—I needed a remedial class in cold frames.
When you took us through the tools of the trade, you didn’t say “unheated greenhouse,” but in your book you have mini-profiles of some people with unheated greenhouses. That would be another way to go.
A. Unheated poly tunnels are very economical; very nice. I’ve had them in the past but don’t right now. I just started my garden from scratch again, and I’ve reserved a space for a 14- or 16-foot poly tunnel by 24 feet. That might be in the cards in the next few months.
But you don’t need one. I want home gardeners to know you don’t need a structure to be a winter gardener. You can do it very economically and with very few things you have to build.
Q. You mentioned with your root crops, that just keeping that soil surface from freezing solid, using your leaf or straw mulch, is enough for that. Are there examples of different crops that match up best with one of these tactics, or don’t? What does well in the cold frame?
A. For cold frames, I generally stick to things that are more compact. You don’t want things touching the top glass or plastic. They’ll get burned, or frozen from the cold damage. I’ve done both, I can tell you. [Laughter.] You want to have them a little lower.
So things like endive and mache and spinach and arugula and mizunas and mustards, parsley and scallions and thyme, and all the different mustards, lettuces, chard, pac choi—all of these do well in a cold frame. So do the leafy greens, the compact kales or baby kale, they’re just made for cold frames.
Things like leeks, or tall mature kale plants, or collard greens—they do best under a mini-hoop tunnel.
Q. So it’s more the engineering of the plant; it’s not that one has necessarily a substantially different microclimate inside.
A. It’s matching size to structure. And if you do a straw-bale coldframe, that’s usually taller than a traditional coldframe, so you can do taller things in there as well.
But even things like leeks can be mulched—with leaves or straw, then covered with a bed sheet. You can harvest all winter, without having a structure to build.
Q. I think I read it in the book that you have like 30 things that you can grow, even in Halifax, in the November-to-March period. You just named a bunch. But if I’m going to gingerly wade into this and extend my season into November, December and so on—which ones should I start with?
A. I think the first thing you need to think about is what do you like to eat. I can tell you to grow carrots, but you might be like, “I’m not that fond of carrots.” You should pick what you like to eat. [3 steps to winter carrots, from Niki’s blog.]
Certainly the root crops that are already in your garden in the fall—it’s so easy to extend the season, because again, it’s just a layer of mulch. It’s easy, easy to do that.
Other things that are easy? Spinach is super easy, and arugula. I like mache—it’s one of my favorite greens. I guess in North America we haven’t really embraced it, but in Europe, it’s really popular. It’s so ridiculously cold-tolerant. It doesn’t need the protection of a cold frame or anything. If I have some that’s reseeded in the garden, it’s perfectly fine once the snow retreats in spring. But if I want to eat it in winter, I have to have it in some easy-to-harvest structure.
Mache is super easy to grow, and the mizunas, and a lot of the other Asian greens. I’d usually start with some salad crops, and baby kale, or kale plants under a mini-hoop tunnel. You just can’t go wrong. The first few years I did this, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just playing around and experimenting, but I had so much success because it is so easy to do.
Q. How long ago did you first break outside of the normal gardening calendar season? What happened? [Laughter.]
A. It’s funny, my husband is obsessed with arugula; it’s one of his favorite salad greens. I always grew it in the garden, and then September comes and you get some frost. I hadn’t been out to the garden in maybe two weeks, and I figured it was done, but I went up to plant some garlic in October and there was this bright patch of green. It was the arugula. I thought I had cut it all down, and eaten it all, but it had come back.
And it even tasted better than it had in August or early September, with the cold temperatures. It was delicious, and I was like, “What can I do here?” So we covered it with the row cover you mentioned, and harvested it for maybe four, five or six more weeks, which was astonishing to me.
I thought, “This is cool,” and wondered what else I could grow into late fall and even longer, and started to research.
There are some books out there for market gardeners that are wonderful—reading what other people are doing. Also reading the seed catalogs; there are a lot of clues. It will say, “cold tolerant,” or “winter green,” so I started to grow a lot of these things.
Q. So arugula was your gateway drug into season extension.
A. It absolutely was—it’s a very dangerous salad green. [More on fall prep for winter growing, from Niki’s blog.]
Q. Right now there is still time even in our Northern gardens, to plant some things that we will harvest in the fall. But how much longer are you sowing and transplanting into this garden that may then be under a blanket, or under the lid of a cold frame, or high tunnel.
A. Usually my last sowing of something would be in October—late October—but that’s not something I expect to eat right away. That would be my overwintered greens. I will have a bed that’s totally prepared, and I will sow very cold-tolerant things like arugula, or Asian greens, or spinach, chard or endive—any number of hardy greens.
Then I cover that bed with a mini-hoop tunnel, and then I forget about it, completely. I sow the seed, I’m done. Then in late February or early March, we have more daylength, and as we get more light things start to grow under that mini-hoop tunnel. By mid-March that stuff is ready to harvest. [Below, spinach in mini-hoop tunnel in March; read Niki’s blog about overwintering in a mini-hoop tunnel.]
Q. Your light stand—how long are those in service? When are the last things you do for transplants?
A. Probably by mid- to late September.’I’ve just taken all of my seedlings of fall cabbages and Asian cabbages that were under my grow lights outdoors to harden off. They are going to be going into the garden hopefully if we get some rain in the next day or two. And then I’ll plant lettuces under the lights and they will be ready to transplant in early September, and they’ll take us through February probably. So probably mid-to late September, depending on the year and on how organized I am, to be perfectly honest. [Laughter.]
Q. Gardening is like that, isn’t it? Some years we say we have a “good year” because the weather was good, and some years we say we have a ”good year” because we were organized. [Laughter.]
A. And this year I’m not that organized, because I’m planning ahead for the next book and the photography. I’m feeling that I have to concentrate on that, rather than on the normal gardening.
Q. Two crops that I haven’t really grown the way that I saw in your book: One was Claytonia, the miner’s lettuce. It looked really good.
A. That was a treat, to discover that. I think I read about it in one of Eliot Coleman’s books many years ago. It’s a native plant to California, and actually helped prevent scurvy during the Gold Rush, because it would come up in early spring. The miners out there would eat it, so it has been eaten for many years. I plant that in my cold frames, usually in early to mid-September, I direct seed it. And then nothing happens—it’s like there is an empty spot in my cold frames. But then as the weather gets colder, it really pops up all of a sudden. It loves the cold weather.
By the time late October or November hits, it’s really looking beautiful. We harvest it until March or April, and it will eventually start flowering by February or March–and we eat the flowers in our salads. They’re tiny and nice to add to your salads. It’s prolific, easy to grow, and probably among the top 5 cold-tolerant plants to grow for a fall-winter garden.
Q. The other thing I saw a picture of in your book was flats of pea shoots that you snip with a scissor. Tell us how that works.
A. There are lots of ways to be a year-round vegetable gardener, and one of the ways—especially to engage my kids in fun things—is to grow pea shoots. I start growing them in mid- to late September, and even into April we’ll still be seeding more. You just plant them inside in flats, densely. You don’t need a lot of soil; I use trays, because you don’t need a deep pot. They’re only going to grow for about a month.
Plant them densely, keep them watered, and you’ll be harvesting in about three weeks. We add the pea shoots to stir fries, salads, sandwiches, wraps—just about anything we possibly can. I love adding them to pasta just after you drain it, you kind of wilt them a little bit in there. So delicious.
Very easy to grow, and there are other shoots to grow as well—broccoli shoots, arugula shoots. You just want to make sure you buy seed from a company that specializes in growing shoots and sprouts, because some seed of course has been treated, and you should avoid that when you’re going to grow them as a food source.
Q. I told a friend of mine who’s an organic seed farmer that I really wanted to grow pea shoots like he does, sowing them really thickly. But I thought that would be very expensive, because pea seeds aren’t cheap and he said to get seed for organic field peas—like that you would use for a cover crop—because it’s such a good value. He happens to sell them so that was easy for me.
A. That’s a good one. Because I grow a global vegetable garden, I do sometimes buy seeds in bulk from the bulk food store. I buy chickpeas, lentils—and then plant them in the garden. Even sesame seeds, as long as they’re not roasted or treated. So there are ways you can save money, for sure.
Q. In our last minutes, I have to ask you: Did you really bulldoze that super-productive garden of yours, Niki? [Laughter.]
A. My second book [“Groundbreaking Food Gardens”] was all about designing food gardens, and I had all these ideas from all these incredible people who contributed. I had been going around for a year and half about all these ways I wanted to change my garden, and then we decided to just do it.
We brought in a big tractor, and they leveled the area, and we have a big back lawn area and we took out half of that to expand the garden.
We were ready to build, we had all the hemlock delivered. I had the design, and then my husband’s back went out. [Niki’s blog post on the project, with photos.]
A. We had to bring the contractor back in to help us build the beds, so the cost did go up a little bit. But I now have this space with 20 raised beds, three or four tunnels, surrounded by a deer fence because we are in a deer super-highway. The space has just transformed into this lovely space that I sit in every day. I have my tea there at least twice a day. I love it; it’s beautiful. And it’s upped my garden game, I think.
Q. So you may not be sitting in it in January, but you’ll be going out to shovel the snow off those cold frames or to keep the hoop tunnels from a heavy snow load.
A. I’ve never shoveled my mini-hoop tunnels, because I find that with what I keep in there it doesn’t make a huge difference. But I do shovel off the cold frames. I do it quickly, so it doesn’t get icy. Even in winter, you still want the sunlight coming through your cold frames. You do have to keep them clean, yes.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 8, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
enter to win niki’s year-round book
I’LL BUY A COPY of Niki Jabbour’s “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box by scrolling all the way down the page, after the last reader comment:
Do you grow any edibles in the “offseason,” whether indoors or under cover or in a greenhouse–even if just a few extra weeks before or after frost with row covers and the like?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will. But an answer is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Monday, August 15, 2016. Good luck to all.
(Photos courtesy of Niki Jabbour. Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)