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winter

Never mind the turtles in Aiken, South Carolina. There wasn’t ice on the ponds! I’ve bounced golf balls on ponds in central Pennsylvania. Every winter I develop an urge to travel south as an appetizer for the coming spring.

As you might learn from many web-based “tips” for beginning gardeners: you should put your home kitchen garden where it will get sunlight. I’ve yet to see the following tip in any of those beginning gardening articles: Make sure you put your gardener where he or she will get sun.

I’ve no objection to winter, but I enjoy it much more when I get at least a week of respite some time before the spring thaw. Every gardener in northern climes—and especially those who manage massive kitchen gardens—should try to head south for a break in January or February.

Winter Escape from a Home Kitchen Garden

Winter has suspended my own home kitchen garden, and it has slowed me down a bit. Most of that has to do with holidays; the rest of my family lives by the school calendar, and it was a particularly lengthy winter break this year. Thankfully, our break included escape from winter.

My in-laws have recently moved to Aiken, South Carolina, and on the Sunday after Christmas, we piled into the minivan and went for a visit. My mother-in-law, you might recall, introduced me to red pepper relish, one of the many fine foods she has fed me in the years since I met her daughter.

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Aiken is nearly 700 miles south of Lewisburg. That’s plenty far enough to put winter out of reach. Some days ran more than 60F degrees, and all days but one were sunny. Of course, I Googled attractions in Aiken, and picked up brochures. The nearest public garden was just a few blocks from my in-laws. So, on an unscheduled afternoon, we were off to Hopelands Gardens.

No Home Kitchen Garden

Click the photo above to view photos from Hopelands Gardens in Aiken, South Carolina.

Even in winter, the gardens were green and gorgeous. There were squirrels, ducks, and turtles about, and there were spring flowers in bloom. Many of the plants at Hopelands Gardens were unfamiliar to me; I suspect they’re not common in central Pennsylvania. And, clearly, no one planted the garden with a kitchen in mind. In fact, given the same space and resources, a kitchen gardener could provide fresh vegetables and fruit for at least a hundred families.

Hopelands Gardens is a tragic misappropriation of gardening space, but it made for a very pleasant afternoon. The garden walk helped to recharge me so I’ll hold up through the next two months of Pennsylvania’s winter. If you can find a way, get out of the winter for a week, and find a nice garden to visit. Now I’m anticipating some warm days in March, pruning and grafting in my apple trees.

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I was astonished—and annoyed—to find ripe-and-ready woodland strawberries among the weeds in my home kitchen garden. The woodland strawberries around here are flavorless and dry which makes these volunteers “invasive weeds.” Ripe strawberries in November? Not in central Pennsylvania… until this year.

I planted a salad mix of lettuce seeds in September. Despite several frosts and one or two freezes, there are some beautiful leaves ready to harvest.

My home kitchen garden has seen a particularly mild autumn. We’ve had only ten nights with frost, and none colder than 26F. While the few cold nights killed off my tomato and basil plants, the dill weed still paints a wall of deep, frilly green at one end of my planting bed, and a small lettuce patch planted in late summer is calling me to harvest.

 

No surprise: There is still oregano. I added one plant about four years ago. Now there’s a five-foot diameter circle of oregano from which I use a few dozen sprigs each year.

For at least two weeks, I’ve intended to put the garden to bed. The last thing I figure to do each season is toss fallen leaves from my lawn onto the planting bed. When my wife put the kids on alert that this weekend they’d rake the yard, I knew I had to end my procrastination. The few things I did:

  • Cut the ties that supported my dead tomato stalks against the tomato stakes
  • Pulled the dead tomato plants and tossed them on the compost heap
  • Pulled the tomato stakes and leaned them against the side of the house (they may make it into the shed before snow falls)
  • A few tomatoes are trying to escape the garden. They lay waiting under cover of dandelions, hoping I’ll get careless and leave the rodent fence down.

  • Pulled the stakes that supported the last pea trellis; I’d left one of three pea trellises standing to support a late planting—too late a planting: the young peas froze though some of the plants continued to grow
  • Dug out a few of the largest, hairiest weeds… mostly so I could see what types of roots they had
  • Inspected the awesome dandelion crop and surveyed the undergrowth for anything unusual
  • Collected gardening tools I’d conveniently stored in the garden through the season and leaned them against the house
  • Opened several panels in the rodent fence so it’d be easy to rake leaves into the garden

Free Mulch for my Home Kitchen Garden

After lunch today, the kids raked the leaves and moved all of them into the garden. They spread the leaves over all the weeds, right up to—but not covering—the perennials I want to preserve. They also left the lettuce poking through. Most obviously: they didn’t cover the dill; they didn’t have enough leaves to cover the dill.

There is still coriander; I’d hoped it would re-seed itself, but this year it didn’t. Hours after I took this picture, I saw two juncos plucking the seeds off the dried plants.

So, the garden is in bed for the winter. Snuggled under about a foot of dead leaves, the dandelion greens may rot a little, or they may go dormant and enjoy the soft cover. Whatever the verdict in the spring, I know I’ll be digging deep to pull weeds as I prepare to plant my home kitchen garden.

I was surprised even more than by the strawberries to find this critter on one of my tomato stakes. I thought these things flew south for the winter; this one must be waiting for cheap fares.

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