December in the Veggie Garden

Wild chickweed, edible and tasty, raw or cooked

My December garden doesn't look too much different from November. Our weather continues to be relatively mild with regular precipitation, so the winter vegetables are growing well. I was surprised and delighted to discover some "wild" greens I foraged last spring are lush and green again now. I confirmed the identity of Chickweed with my fellow foraging friend Judy; it's a mildly flavored, very nourishing plant, and can be used in a salad, in a green smoothie, or cooked lightly. It is growing in abundance in the rich soil outside my compost bin, and I am harvesting it to use almost daily.

From the garden, I've been picking romaine and leaf lettuce continually for salads, lots of beet greens (and beet "reds") to use raw and cooked, scallions from the onion bed, and tiny spinach leaves. I've twice harvested enough brussels sprouts for a meal. I lightly sauteed them with onions and they were delicious! As a first-time collard grower, I am waiting to see if the plants grow replacements where I've picked the Barbie-size cabbage heads at the intersections of the leaf with the main stem. I've also loved my collards. One morning I found them covered with beautiful lacy patterns of frost and figured they'd been killed. By afternoon the air was warm and they looked as healthy as ever, so their season continues. My "straw" mulch on the strawberry plants has proven to be a mistake; it's hay with seeds in it, so green grass is starting to grow everywhere - I'll be removing the straw and weeding soon!

I've also got a few things growing in the cold frame, which I keep closed unless the day is sunny and/or above 50 degrees. The flat leaf parsley in the cold frame is growing well, and the other seedlings I planted there are healthy although slow growing: romaine, spinach, red beets, leaf lettuce. The celeriac seedlings are still as tiny as they were months ago; I don't know what went wrong there.

Self-seeded cilantro, growing among larkspur and weeds!
I extended the growing season on some of my herbs by potting them in the fall and growing them by my south-facing basement window, where the temperature is usually 50-60 degrees. The lemon grass is growing tall and strong, so I'll be able to replant it outdoors in spring if the clumps I grew last year don't survive outside. I also have a pot of basil, which is a warm-weather annual. I have little pots of cilantro and mint also, but I am still able to harvest those from the outdoor gardens, along with lemon balm, parsley, rosemary, chives, sage, thyme, and fennel… yum! I planted a cilantro bed in the garden, but I also let it grow where it can go to seed (harvested as coriander) and replant itself, which it does very well. This time of year I also grow sprouts in the kitchen, for additional fresh harvests. I most often grow a mix of alfalfa, broccoli, and red clover sprouting seeds.

For those interested in learning more about cold weather gardening, I recommend the book The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman (fourseasonfarm.com). This man, with partner Barbara Damrosch, makes his living selling produce, year round - in Maine! He uses hot houses, cold houses, row covers, specially chosen varieties, and other means. The book is easy to read, very informative, and has a list of good resources. The successes and failures of his many years in business can be boiled down to methods a home gardener can employ.

If you are considering gardening for the first time, All New Square Foot Garden, by Mel Bartholomew (squarefootgardening.com), gives fabulous step by step instructions. The theory, based on growing in small, manageable raised beds, is helpful to experienced gardeners too. I've watched novice gardeners fail when, in their excitement, they plant a huge garden, only to discover they can't keep up with the work. They end up discouraged, with little to show for all their initial effort. This book helps you start small and enjoy success.

This time of year, gardeners like me start thinking about year's garden, especially when seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Somehow I got on the mailing list and received the most beautiful seed catalog I had ever seen last year. It's from Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can request it free and can view the entire catalog online: rareseeds.com. What amazed me were all the vegetables and fruits which I never even knew existed! This company has collected heirloom seeds from all over the world, with many interesting stories about the sources. There's page after page of tomato varieties, in all different colors, sizes, and shapes. There are squashes with colorful spots and bumpy textures on their skin. There are beans with "wings". Seeds from Iran, Thailand, former Soviet countries, and all over the USA. I love going through the catalog, over and over. Next month I'll report on new seeds I plan to grow in 2012.

'Hope you'll be enjoying home grown squashes and sweet potatoes as part of your holiday meals!