Story and photos by Ashley Bommer Singh
Laura Ingalls Wilder once quipped, “I don’t want to marry a farmer.” When pressed by her soon-to-be farmer-husband, she said “Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money.”
Having an 1870s property where everything seems to break spontaneously, her books have found a nice home here. Those words written over 100 years ago resonate. When winter comes and the air turns cold, gardener spirits change. There is work to be done to prepare the beds and protect the vegetable garden. There are bulbs to be planted. There are flower pots to re-dress with pansies, ornamental cabbages and kale. There are seed catalogues to order.
But that charging forward optimism of spring changes. The nights come quick and the mornings start late. The house gets cold, and we sleep just a little longer, lingering under the comforter. The kale and chard leaves in our raised beds slow down, too. I am reminded of Laura’s worry of a farm being a hard place to live. What happens at mealtime when the garden rests?
My gardening friend Kate Shields in Unison likes to grow broccoli rabe in her beds for as long as it will go. She sautés the broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic and chili powder to warm her up on cold evenings. After the harvest, she covers her beds with 4-5 inches of aged manure and lets the “winter and worms do the work.”
Gardens and soil need the cold to stay healthy and regenerate. English gardener Monty Don notes that a month of frost kills off garden enemies like fungus, aphids and snails better than any spray. Snow insulates the soil and draws seeds down into the beds. You have time to clean your tools and get organized.
However, if you like to keep your garden going through winter and have salad every day, you can. Sunny windows, bed sheets, cold frames, green houses and cold storage all do the trick. Gary Hall, who ran Brassicas Farm Fresh Market and Café in Aldie, is turning to his garden this winter. Greenheart, the local juice company that sources produce from nearby farms, has moved into the old Brassicas space.
Gary is clearing out corn stalks and dried bean and tomato vines. He moved herbs like mint, parsley, dill, cilantro to a sunny spot in the house. Onion seeds went in outdoor raised beds. Garlic cloves, as well, for their early shoots in December for soup garnishes and for harvest next year. With frost protection Gary also grows (in a good year) kale, spinach, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, beets and carrots. He covers his winter crops with a bed sheet to protect them from early morning frost. He removes the sheet in the morning so the plants can absorb the sun and keeps them watered to survive the chill. Later, when it gets colder, he uses row cover or a greenhouse to extend the growing season.
Gary noted that you can leave carrots in the ground to be harvested when needed – the ultimate cold storage for sweet roots. He advises to leave a pitch fork in the ground where you last harvested so you know where to dig post snowfall.
Before it’s too late in the season, I like to pick the last of the apples and pumpkins up at beautiful Hollin Farms in Delaplane for use in soups. Hot homemade soup and fresh bread are the best part of the cold. Sourdough is our favorite thanks to a starter carefully nurtured by Joan Gardiner, another Unison neighbor. Not only is Joan’s sourdough bread mind-blowing, she says she can make twelve loaves for the price of one at the store. And Joan’s no-knead bread is easy and comes out talking to you as the crisp crust crackles while it cools. Laura Ingles Wilder would be proud. While at Hollin, take a page from Hill School mom Jen Hudson and collect the pumpkin blossoms. Jen sautés the flowers in butter and salt and pepper as a side dish. With fresh bread on the table, homemade soup and sautéed blossoms, I felt like a very gourmet pioneer. Gathering around the fire, we designed our fantasy greenhouse to extend the garden into winter and like Laura, to “farther on.”
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Middleburg Life.