In the middle of February we usually get a winter thaw: The cold lets up for a bit; the sun comes out a little brighter, and the hardy, over-wintering plants in the vegetable garden perk up, thinking of spring. After the extended cold and dustings of snow in December and January, the lowermost buds on the Brussels sprouts begin to unfold, looking to bush out and flower later on. The overwintering leeks that survived the low temperatures put up central bud stalks that will ultimately expand into a large Allium globes. Kales form yellow flowerets, early targets for bees and other pollinators that have survived the winter as well as for the small hardy birds that didn’t fly south. Overall, one senses the first turn of the winter season to spring, however far ahead it may be.
Along with the natural stirrings of plants going to seed, come the printed seed catalogs, popping up in mailboxes like gaudy Jack-in-the-box offerings. The enticing booklets display all the wished-for seeds just waiting to be ordered by every gardener anticipating the coming growing season.
A favorite of mine is from the Kitazawa Seed Co., of Oakland, California, celebrating its 100th Anniversary, 1917-2017. It is a source of high-quality Asian and particularly Japanese vegetables, with an extensive selection of Oriental radishes, including daikon as well as Korean, and Chinese types; innumerable brassicas, mustards, and pak chois; and specialty items such as Dewako One Bite Eggplant, a tiny black Japanese variety ideal for pickling. When I traveled in Japan several years ago, the vinegary “One Bites” were a particular treat at the festive dinners served by my hosts. The catalogue also features a sampling of traditional Japanese vegetable recipes for quick pickles, soups and salads.
Territorial Seed Company is the prime local source of high quality seeds most suitable for the Northwest climate, with the varieties one needs for year-round gardening locally. Territorial was founded by Steve Solomon, whose book, “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening,” now in its 6th edition, is the most complete analysis of our climate, soils, and overall horticultural needs. His extensive gardening trials over the years in Lorane, Oregon, provide an in-depth record of how to adapt to our cool maritime growing seasons. Of particular interest is his analysis of nutrients and amendments needed for Northwest soils, which were created when the glaciers retreated after the last ice age.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, from Maine, offers a similar emphasis on growing in cool seasons. The long-time garden researcher Elliot Coleman, closely associated with Johnny’s Seeds, operates a vegetable farm on the northern coast of Maine, at a similar latitude to our corner of the continent. His latest publication is “The Winter Harvest Handbook, Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses.” Delving into the history of market gardening in Northern Europe, Coleman demonstrates that it is possible to harvest vegetables even in the depth of very severe winters, via grow tunnels, extra layers of floating row covers, judicious planting schedules, and attention to seed varieties. The basic premise is that if such techniques are possible in wintry Maine, they can be applied to most northern latitudes. We can easily apply the same methods to our relatively warmer winters, thanks to the Japanese Current and ice-free Puget Sound.
Arriving at the same time as the mail catalogs, the first seed racks appear in the stores, like revolving metal Christmas trees that have returned for a second go at our wallets. They are full of gift-sized packets just waiting to be added to our garden plans. Full-color photos feature newly discovered varieties, the latest All-American Winners, special new hybrids as well as old-time favorites.
It is a fashion show of sorts, with gleaming corn, beautiful beans, the most luscious of greens, and the reddest of tomatoes. Each packet offers enthusiastic commentary on a vegetable’s quality, taste, disease resistance, and ability to grow to grow to maturity in one’s backyard. Such hope and temptation, so easily available in such small envelopes. Winter is not over, but these initial shows of printed color do reset one’s inner clock to thinking of what to plant and how soon.
Last year we had an extended warm spell in early spring, which got things off to an unseasonal start, only to grow chilly and rainy in May-June, setting plants back or hastening their going to seed later on. Plants, along with gardeners, were confused. Then a sunny, warmer-than-ever summer helped some plants recover. In grow tunnels, tomatoes and salad peppers ripened into full sweetness and hot peppers developed true heat. “Bodacious” corn, a mid-length variety, planted late the first week of June, did fine; long-season white corn, a favorite variety done as an experiment in anticipation of the warming local climate, matured by September and made it into the pot and into the freezer.
Potatoes were abundant. Spring-planted cabbages did well, protected under their floating row cover. Mid-summer plantings of fall leeks, overwintering purple broccoli, and hardy cabbages sized up before the first frost, promising winter-long harvests. Fall season fennel bulbs held up well enough to be served fresh at the Thanksgiving table. With the summer crop of dill long gone, the fennel fronds were also a good stand-in to accompany home-made Scandinavian gravlax: salmon filets cured for 72 hours in a mix of salt, pepper, sugar, and a splash of eau-de-vie. No additional smoke needed to create thin, translucent salmon slices.
Late Winter Chores
There are a few late winter chores to do in the garden. Spread whatever finished compost that has accumulated onto the vegetable beds; add slow-acting dolomite lime to the garden but avoiding where you plan to put in potatoes, which prefer our native acid soils.
The one crop that does require immediate attention is garlic. It needs a jolt of nitrogen in mid-to-late February to get spring bulb growth started since nutrients are not available that early in our cold wet earth. For convenience, I apply a thin top layer of organic, all-round vegetable fertilizer pellets. Well-seasoned animal manures will work if distributed finely enough; one can also indulge in sprinklings of blood meal or bat guano. Use anything that will dissolve in the rain and promote healthy, good-sized bulbs. Fertilizing later in the spring will promote leafy growth at the expense of the cloves, and perhaps encourage disease such as rust. Since garlic is so central to enjoying a host of other vegetables in the garden, wintertime attention to its specific need is vital.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, be mindful of change. The weather will always be unexpected. It is best to remain flexible: re-sow when seeds rot out or plants go to seed early; plant a variety of vegetables, since what worked last year may fizzle this year. Try a few new things on the off chance they might work out well. Have lots of options. And be thankful for those tempting seed packets in February, as well as the cornucopia of vegetable starts available in the nurseries when spring fully arrives. Seeds and starts are the gifts that last.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.