Even as cold winds blow and the frosty ground is covered with snow, we are still harvesting fresh greens from the garden! Above, you can see Nick uncovering some crisp green Russian Kale from one our low hoop houses. I also harvested tatsoi, chard, lettuce, radicchio and red mustard greens this week.
Here’s how do we did it. In November, when a heavy freeze threatened, we set up the framework for our low hoops and covered them with clear plastic. This is one of those seasonal chores, along with putting the garden to bed, caulking windows and emptying the rain barrels.
The frames for our low hoops are made of 8-to-10-foot lengths of 1/2″ PVC plastic pipes, which we have put through holes in a wooden ridge pole. We set short lengths of 3/4″ pipes at intervals along the side of each bed to be covered, and inserted the longer lengths in these holders. When the frame was erected, we covered it with 6 mil plastic film secured to the poles with large clips. We usually cover one end with a smaller piece of plastic for a door to enter when we harvest. We weighed down the plastic with boards or bricks to keep it from flapping in high winds. We also stacked bags of leaves along the north side to give a little insulation from the icy arctic blasts.
As season extenders go, these low hoops are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up. We dream of building a greenhouse out of salvaged windows I have been saving for years for that purpose. Or we might go the route of the walk-in hoop house, like many gardeners and farmers around the Northeast. Eliot Coleman’s book Four Season Harvest is a great resource. But for now, these low hoops are sufficient for our needs.
Over the years of using these hoop houses, we have refined our technique. We have a much higher survival rate for the winter crops, especially more delicate ones like lettuce and chard, if we supplement the hoop house with non-woven row covers and, in the case of little lettuce plants, even cut-off milk bottles AND row cover. Kale is extremely hardy, as is the Asian green tatsoi, but they too appreciate the extra coverings. Truth is, none of these plants grow much if at all in the darkest months, when they are in a state of semi-dormancy. But come the longer days and warmer temperatures in the hoop house in late February and March, and the kale takes off. We get an abundant second harvest of leaves before they send up their flower stalks and make tiny flowerbud broccolis, which we also enjoy eating.
When there is a heavy snow, sometimes the low hoops collapse! So snow removal becomes part of the winter chore list.
Nutritious kale is much sweeter after frost, so those put off by a bitter flavor in summer-harvested kale might try winter kale for a taste treat. We wash the leaves by immersing them and swishing them around in a pot of water, then strip the green leaves from the thick stems. I bundle a bunch of the leaves together in one hand on the cutting board and cut into 1/4″ – 1/2″ ribbons. I used to steam first before sauteing, but now I just saute the leaves in olive oil with garlic, tamari and a tiny squirt of agave nectar. Ideally, I cook them for about 10 minutes, so the kale is tender but still bright green. And be aware that, like most greens, kale shrinks to a fraction of the quantity you prepared.
It is reassuring to me to know that we can grow, harvest and eat these nutritious vegetables throughout the winter. As the bumper sticker slogan says, Eat More Kale!