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Archive for Sunday, December 24, 2000

Winter greens

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t have a garden

December 24, 2000

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— A vegetable gardener who doesn't have a greenhouse can still keep in touch with the earth in wintertime.

Simply grow parsnips and dig them up through the snow. Brussels sprouts and kale are good winter crops, surviving zero temperatures. A heated cold frame provides lettuce and other leafy greens.

A fruitful and popular winter pastime is growing kitchen herbs like parsley, chives, rosemary, thyme and basil indoors. They can be dug up from the garden, repotted and given a new life on a windowsill or under fluorescent lights. Or they may be started directly from seed indoors.

On a cold November day, I took a spade out to the garden and dug up a handsome broadleaf parsley plant. I cut back the leaves sharply, trimmed the roots and repotted it. Now it is prospering on a windowsill, its central taproot driving up rich new leaf growth for my salads and condiments.

The plant has in effect gone back to its childhood: I started it from seed indoors under lights a year ago. It gave good leaves in wintertime and then, in April, I transplanted it to the garden, where it thrived all summer and fall. Now it has probably moved into its final season, parsley being a biennial.

Parsley is quite hardy, producing abundantly long after the first frosts of October. So I can delay digging it up. But other herbs likely will need to come indoors sooner. If you want to try saving basil for a spell indoors, the plant must come in before the first frost kills it.

When repotting, be sure your containers are large enough to allow for root expansion.

Potted herbs may be sited on windowsills, preferably facing south or west, or placed under fluorescent lights, a popular alternative. Growlight table models are available commercially that accommodate herb pots nicely.

If placing pots on windowsills, it's important to turn them regularly to give all sides of the plants equal exposure to the sun. Or a tea cart can be used as an herb garden that may be wheeled around to sunlit areas.

I've had success with parsley and chives both on windowsills and under lights. With basil, I've found it most convenient to start the plants directly from seed indoors. I use the dwarf variety, Ocimum basilicum minimum, which develops tiny leaves compared to the ordinary large-leaf variety, which gets too big for an indoor site.

Some herbs, like rosemary, are ideal for indoor growing, but short-lived annuals like coriander, cress and dill are regarded as not worth the effort.

When starting seeds under fluorescent lights, you must make sure that the container stays close to the lights, about an inch away, otherwise the seedlings will become leggy and fail. This is because artificial lights are much weaker than sunlight. Most light stands now are equipped for easy lowering and raising of the tubes.

In an apartment building, the heating system may make the air over-dry for many plants. This is something to watch. Misting with an atomizer helps maintain proper humidity.

Besides herbs, leafy kinds of lettuce and other greens, like arugula and spinach, also do well indoors under lights.

They also will thrive outdoors in a heated coldframe. In my garden, I have enjoyed such greens all winter in a frame that is heated by inserting an electrified mat under the soil. The heating cables are available commercially from greenhouse equipment providers.

Parsnips are sown in the spring for harvesting the following winter or even as late as spring, giving them a year to develop from seedbed to cooking pot. You mark their place in the ground with stakes that will be visible in the snow, then break through the frozen ground to get what some of us consider one of the tastiest of vegetables.

I sow kale and Brussels sprouts in midsummer for harvesting in late fall and winter. The taste of these vegetables improves with frost.

I like to go out on a snowy Christmas morning to pick sprouts for the holiday dinner.

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