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We’re a third of the way through winter. The days are about as long as they were at Thanksgiving — which is to say, they felt short at the time, but wouldn’t you be up for some late-November weather right now?
Of course, the ground here is still covered in snow and ice, and while the tenth day in the current 10-day forecast is promising 55 degrees(!), we can’t really hold our breath on a significant thaw anytime soon. In central PA, the frost-free “safe” date is in May — before that, it’s risky to put delicate seedlings and starts outdoors without some kind of protection. It’s not exactly prime growing season.
When folks hear that Radish & Rye carries exclusively local produce, their next question is often, “But what do you do in the winter?” Yeah. It’s a fair question. But if you haven’t yet experienced R&R in the winter — the answer might surprise you.
First, there’s the roots. These are the beets and turnips and rutabagas and carrots. They might not be as sexy as broccoli and asparagus, but they have a staying power that is impressive. Most of these goodies are harvested in the late fall, preferably after at least the first good frost — but, of course, before the ground freezes and they’re stuck! The greatest threat to most plants in the cold is that the water inside their cell walls will freeze, expanding as it does, and….kind of exploding the cell walls. A terrible way to go, I think. But luckily for these guys (and us), they have adapted a self-defense mechanism — when temperatures reach freezing, through some kind of chemical magic, they convert their own starches to sugars, thus lowering the freezing temperature of their water, in most cases down to around 25-28 degrees. They survive as long as it stays above that temperature — and they get a little sweeter. Some of the farmers we work with won’t touch their carrot crops until after the first hard frost, it makes such a difference in flavor.
So okay, these veggies have used their adaptive magic to make it to late fall, and then we harvest them. Time to eat! Not so fast….at least it doesn’t have to be!
Many of these winter crops, adapted as they are to survive some level of cold, are biennials — they grow from seed to giant root in the first year, survive the winter by living underground and sweetening themselves up (their greens will, around here, usually die back), and then in the second year they will put the energy they’ve stored in the root into flowering, going to seed, and beginning the cycle all over again.
We don’t usually let most of them get that far, because we’re using those roots for our own purposes (though some farmers will allow some of their plants to overwinter, then save the seeds they can collect in the spring or summer). The upside for us is that because these roots are adapted to last for months in the cold ground — they do pretty well for months in cold storage, too. Sometimes you’ll see a January or February carrot starting to sprout some greens — he probably caught a warm breeze or some extra humidity somewhere along the way, and thought, “IT’S TIME!”. Sorry, buddy. I’m going to have to roast you before you go any further with that idea.
Onions are a similar situation, except they don’t do great with freezing temperatures, and are extra liable to get confused if they get cold and then get warm again. You know how sometimes you see a shoot starting to come out of the middle of an onion? It was probably refrigerated at some point along the way, got the idea that it was winter, and then when it warmed up, thought it was spring. Time to GROW! Those little green shoots won’t hurt anyone (they’re basically a scallion), but they will start consuming the rest of the onion as fuel for their journey. When we find these sprouting guys in our displays, they become Urgent Use onions, and it is a race against the shoot. Most of the onions, though, for at least the next month or so, will be happy to lie sleeping in their display bins. I usually refrigerate mine once I get them home, just in case they got chilly somewhere along the way. By spring, even the onions that have stayed a consistent temperature will be starting to wake up, starting to realize they should get moving if they’re going to be responsible for the next generation.
Potatoes also grow underground. I don’t really understand them. But they store really well, as do sweet potatoes (no relation), and we’ll have both through till spring.
And then there are the squash. They grow above ground, and are a completely different story. Sort of. Theirs is also a tale of reproduction, or an attempt at it. There are something like a zillion different kinds of squash (if you factor in cross-pollination, I believe this would literally be true, if a zillion were a real number). Some of these varieties are best for eating in the summer — zucchini — and don’t store particularly well, and some — butternut — are perfect for the winter. These gals are technically fruits — like tomatoes and cucumbers and eggplant and okra — but their goal is to make it through winter, until the ground thaws, so that when they finally fall apart they’ll spill their seeds into the dirt, which has now also received some bonus fertilization in the form of composting squash flesh.
I freaking love that these plants have adapted ways of keeping themselves through the winter, and that we humans have figured out how to work with them. (And I love eating them, too.)
It’s not all about the ingenuity of plants, though — some of what we have this time of year is also the ingenuity of humans. There are lots of ways to grow things “out of season” with supplemental heat and light, but my favorites are those that don’t require those things — just a little engineering in the form of an unheated high tunnel. Thanks to the greenhouse effect (though, ironically, a “greenhouse”, as opposed to a high tunnel, does typically receive supplemental heat), a clear(ish) structure can trap enough solar gain during the even the darkest winter days to keep the ground warm enough for seeds to germinate. This is most successful if there’s actual sunshine (not all clouds), and while the days are short the leaves will grow verrrry slooooowwwwllllly — but they’ll grow enough to keep us in salad mixes comprising a variety of baby greens.
The biggest greens, the braising greens like kale and collards, will be in short supply while the days are short, but we may have them here and there.
And this is just the plants!
We’ve also, all year-round, got freezers and fridges full of goodies like meat and dairy and cheese that can actually be produced year-round*, and pantry shelves lined with treats — ranging from applesauce to flour — that were processed and preserved in-season.
It’s a pretty vast, palette, really — something, we hope, for every palate. 🙂
*Okay, okay, some of what’s in the freezer is not produced year-round, and that’s part of why it’s in the freezer. Pastured chicken is a good example — chickens aren’t awesome at this kind of cold, and there’s not a lot of pasture to be had (it’s under a bunch of snow), so the farmers we work with raise chickens only seasonally. Etc.