It’s mid-January but maybe you’re just itchin’ to do a little gardening despite the cold, dark weather. Here are five easy gardening tasks to scratch your gardening itch.
1) First, if you want to work outside and you did your homework by preparing a bed or two last fall, now is a good time to plant those small potato onions that you put aside in October or November when you planted most of them. (If you’re wondering what the heck is a potato onion, check out Yellow Potato Onions.) Plant on a dry sunny day when the ground isn’t too wet.
2) Starting bulbing onions and bunching onions from seed is another traditional January task. For bulbing onions be sure to pick the right day-length for your area. Use flats filled with good quality organic potting mix or well-screened compost. Either broadcast or sow 1/2″ apart. For bulbing onions transplant when the plants are less than a pencil’s width.
3) A third January job is starting lettuce in flats. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson started “a thimble-full” of seed every week. For a more modest family size garden, sow a pinch of seed every couple of weeks.
4) Here on our Virginia farm (zone 7 now but we used to be 6b) we start our first broccoli and cabbage in January. For these early sowings we like Calabrese and Green Goliath broccoli and Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage. We plan to set out the seedlings in 6-8 weeks.
5) Rhubarb and globe artichokes are two perennials that you can grow as annuals if you start them now. Six weeks after sowing, vernalize the young plants by keep them below 50°F for another six weeks.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the size of your winter squash harvest. But not to worry. Winter squash will keep for months if undamaged, cured well, and stored well. If you have enough pumpkin recipes and squash recipes, you won’t get tired of it. Pumpkin butter is delicious, and it’s not hard to make two months’ worth at once.
Start by cutting any kind of pumpkin or other winter squash in half or quarters. Scoop out the seeds, and for best texture, scrape out the stringy pulp around the seeds. Lay the squash on a baking sheet. Some prefer face up; others prefer face down. We cooked ours face up. You’ll retain the most moisture in your squash if you cook it face down, with a little water in the pan.
Bake the squash until it is easy to put a fork through it. We baked ours for a little over an hour. Large chunks of very large squash would take longer.
When the baked squash is cool enough to handle, scrape it off the skin. Even if the skin is tender and soft enough to be palatable with a chunk of squash, the texture of the pumpkin butter will be much better (and more buttery!) without it.
Now it’s time to add spices and sugar. We used one part sugar for every four parts squash. We also added cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Sorry, we didn’t measure the spices; we just tasted the spiced pumpkin and added a few more pinches of ginger. Some people add orange zest, but we didn’t.
When you’ve mixed the spices into the squash, put it back in the oven. Ours made a layer about 2 inches deep in a steam table tray, and we baked it for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees the second time around. If you spread yours into a thinner layer, you’ll probably want to bake it for less time.
I like pumpkin butter the most when some areas have just started to turn dark brown and caramelize.
While Ken was planting spinach in the garden, I brought him a biscuit with a thick layer of fresh pumpkin butter.
We like to put our pumpkin butter in mason jars, but we don’t can it. It’s not acidic enough to be canned in a boiling water bath, and pressure canning might ruin the texture. We’ll store these jars in the refrigerator for up to a couple of months.
You might also want to try the pumpkin jam recipe that was recently featured in our e-newsletter.
Fall and winter offer a second chance to grow all the delicious greens and wonderful roots we savor in spring. They’re even easier to grow, thanks to decreasing weed pressure and reduced need to water. Many winter greens, like kale, collards, and spinach, even taste sweeter in fall as they concentrate sugars to withstand colder temperatures.
Our garden is brimming with greens ready for harvest now, as well as younger plants that we won’t harvest until early spring when they will grow rapidly as the days begin to lengthen.
Elliot Coleman coined the term “Persephone Days” for the period when there is less than 10 hours a day of sunlight and plant growth slows to a halt. Typically November 21st through January21st, or a little longer due of outside ground temperatures. So what you see in the garden now is what you get until early February for practical purposes, unless you are growing under cover in a greenhouse, cold frame or low tunnel.
So let’s take a look at some of what we have green and growing in the garden on “Black Friday Weekend 2016”:
Kale, collards, and spinach are our largest plantings for winter greens because of their versatility in the kitchen and dependable winter hardiness. Because our earliest succession plantings had spotty germination we have a lot more plants from the later sowings. Luckily for us the unusually warm temperatures continued into November so we have nice full beds of Abundant Bloomsdale spinach and Lacinato Rainbow kale going into December. Fortunately half grown ”juvenile” plants often survive the winter and last longer into the spring. In addition to the heat and drought our collards were also attacked by grasshoppers in August so the remaining plants are smaller than usual at this time. Heirloom collards are survivors so I expect they will do well and start vigorous growth again in early spring.
We have already harvested many of our oriental greens for stir-frying and to make Kimchee, but our Tatsoi greens are still looking and tasting great. In winter we enjoy the shiny dark green leaves in salads, stir-frys and soups. One interesting thing with the spotty germination on some of our early sowings is how large the plants can get in fall and still be sweet and tender.
Another favorite green for us and many others in our region are Creasy Greens and their cousin from grower Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds in the Northwest, Belle Isle Cress. They are lightly spicy and crisp in winter. Take care as they will naturalize if left in the garden to produce seed.
Let’s not forget Arugula, another winter salad favorite.
We also grow a lot of winter lettuce. I especially like red varieties for the deep color they develop in winter. Outredgeous and the Wild Garden Lettuce mix are favorites that have been joined by the heirloom Crawford, a Texas winter salad Lettuce.
We still have some winter roots in the ground: carrots, beets, salsify, parsnip and winter radishes. We have potatoes and sweet potatoes in storage.
Maybe we can look at what we still have canned, dried, fermented and frozen sometime soon. Until then enjoy your garden.