There’s no doubt winter is our season of rest. The first half of it anyways. For a few weeks we can go to sleep without setting our alarms (except for Saturdays), drink our coffee by the fire, make pancakes, poke around the farm for a little while, flip through some seed catalogs, go for a nice walk, make a quite dinner and get back to cuddling. We dream up all the wonders of what we want to grow in the spring and reflect on the previous season. There’s still lots to do outside but the rush and urgency isn’t the same as the pressure of summer. The second half of the winter is full of making trays and seeding, trying to maximize space in David’s basement, and converting winter beds for early spring crops.
When the sun is out we get to retreat to our own little tropical getaway- the high tunnels. Those blustery cold days outside are the perfect weeding days inside. With wind chills in the single digits you can find us in our tee shirts, listening to music or radio, soaking in the sun and enjoying the slowness of the season.
David and Ty were on the frontier of season extension in CT. After visiting Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Farm, in Maine they were inspired by the ability to grow year round and constructed 6 high tunnels. As we’ve grown Star Light now has 16 high tunnels. The expansion to the new land came a little late, but we are really excited to see what our winter production is going to look like next year.
If you’ve spoken with us at the markets or have read enough of our emails then you’ve heard the story about less than ten hours of light and the lack of growth. Successful winter growing takes careful planning, good timing and definitely a bit of luck. However, all of those things mean nothing if you don’t have the right cultivators to that will grow, thrive, provide nutrition and yes be oh so delicious.
Our Favorite Winter Crops
First and foremost, Claytonia! This is at the top of the list because it truly is a winter crop, not growing once it gets too hot so we only have it a few months of the year. Also known as miner’s lettuce, claytonia is a vitamin C powerhouse. We love to mix it into our salads because it adds great flavor and texture, it’s easy to harvest a lot at once, and it’s so dang good for you.
Red Kingdom is next. You’ll see this in our salad and braising mix. It’s a beautiful, deep purple with leaves shaped similar to arugula, and is in the kale family. Red Kingdom is a regrowth champion. It’s a vigorous plant that can be cut multiple times without loosing it’s beauty and it less susceptible to diseases that can cause other plant so pitter out due to excess moister.
Red Russian Kale (aka Baby Kale) is a no brainier for winter growing. It’s sweetness is unmatched and similar to Red Kingdom, Baby Kale can handle multiple cuts and lasts all winter long. Baby Kale is a winter salad pillar and also great just on it’s own.
A new crop for Star Light ( at least under J + J’s management) is White Stemmed Pak Choy. In it’s youngest stage it’s a wonderful, juicy addition to the salad mix but we use it mostly for our braising greens mix. It’s really proven itself this winter and will surely be a staple in our ration going forward. White Stemmed Pak Choy is great this time of year because it also gets big enough to bunch on it’s own as a full on Choy. So we get a few cuts of it for salad and braising, then we get to cut is again as a choy. It’s a win-win. On the same note, Koji is amongst our winter favorites as well. They are great additions to our bagged greens but we also get to bunch them to sell on their own.
Of course, Spinach, is another all time favorite winter crop. We grow at least 10 different varieties! You’ve heard us talk about the tomato waterfall in the summer, well this time of year it’s all about the spinach waterfall. Now that the plants have enough light to regrow we have an abundance of spinach. It’s one of those crops that really sweetens up with the cold weather, making it so good raw or just slightly cooked.
Other over wintered crops that we’ve been having success with include Siberian and White Russian Kale and Swiss chard. Next year we plan to plant double what we did this year of each. Something that we have been excited about was doing more over wintered onions. The last few years we’ve had great success with onions over wintering under low tunnels, but when we expanded in the fall we decided to dedicate a good amount of space for onions in the high tunnels. They are looking great so far! And over course, our over wintered carrots! We’ve got 400 ft planted inside and another 400 ft or so outside under low tunnels. – More about those in the Spring blog. There were a few really cold nights early this winter we were sure the lettuces we planted were goners. Much to our delight, two layers of row cover and another layer of plastic helped protect them and we’ve been enjoying all winter long!
Of course not everything works out as wonderfully as we dream up when planting it in the fall. There are a few lessons which we learned the hard way. It’s simple to make that same mistake 9 or 10 months later when looking at the blank canvas that is a freshly prepared high tunnel. Timing is one. In the rush to plant in time to have your winter harvest, October is really the go to month. Our mid October plantings did work out splendidly but could have used a bit more spacing between successions. The two plantings came one week after another and as a result the mizuna and arugula planted in the second wave were a bit to big for some of our really big cold snaps and thus were damaged, unable to be sold( but thoroughly enjoyed by the sheep and chickens). Waiting another week or two would have resulted in those crops being significantly smaller and better able to shrug off a cold snap. Spacing is another hard learned lesson. As I think any gardener can understand it’s easy to over plant, thinking everything will fit perfectly. However, this isn’t always the case. Two years in a row we’ve attempted to repeat a turnip and spinach inter planting success of three years ago. Twice in a row now the plantings were too close causing the spinach to suffer below a thick canopy of turnip greens.
There are also successes and lessons learned. Botrytus or grey mold is a common cold weather fungus which has plagued our winter production for several years now. We tried different plantings, organically approved fungicides but still the persistent mold would show up wiping out more than half of a beautiful carpet of greens. We then saught the advice of a farmer friend who recommended controlling the humidity. Unless the temps are getting below freezing leaving the high tunnels open and things inside uncovered prevented the build up of excess moisture. The concept can be a difficult one. Think of planting in the late summer and fall. What would your instincts tell you when a cold night, at or near freezing is approaching? Surely to close the high tunnels, protect our plants and capture whatever heat we can before the sun sets. You must however forgo what seems most logical to truly protect your plants and create the most hospitable environment for them.
As we mentioned in our Fall blog post, one of our goals now that we have room to experiment is to start incorporating animals into our ration. This will allow us to be more sustainable by reducing our dependence on fertilizers and compost made off the farm. So when a fellow CT organic farmer was downsizing their flock we jumped at the opportunity to get certified organic laying hens at a good price.
These ladies are extremely friendly. Especially compared to the flock we got last winter, who are doing great by the way. When we go to pick them up they just squat down and let us! Which is great for catching the ones who get loose, not so great for hiding from hawks. Their eggs are very large and a nice coffee brown with little dark speckles.
Using all recyclable material left by the previous land owner we pieced together a winter coop for them in the back of a high tunnel being used for storage. Our plan is to build some kind of moveable chicken coop (aka chicken tractor) for them this spring and rotate them and the sheep around to keep the grass mowed. With time, the chickens will start to be rotated on the vegetable beds as part of our bed flipping process. Seeing as we need to allow 3 to 4 months before harvesting off of any beds the chickens have been on, this will need to be carefully planned and done thoughtfully.
Our lives revolve so much around the seasons that by the time winter rolls around it’s so nice to just lean into it for a while. I love a good snow storm because for that one moment there’s nothing to do. The world gets quite and still for a minute and we can just awe at the beauty and wonderment of mother natures. But let’s be honest, it has been a cold and long winter. The weather is getting nicer and we all have had our fill of the season. Let us warm your hearts and fill your head with the dreamy thoughts of spring to come. The garlic and tulips are popping up. The radishes and turnips and lettuce heads are starting to give their little wake up wiggles. The carrots and beets are waving hi. The onions are standing at attention. The kales, collards, and chard leaves are more broad. The nursery is filling up. What wild adventures await us here at Star Light Gardens you ask? Stay tuned for stories and images about what sort of chicken tractors we can hobble together as we move towards our goal of animal incorporation and a more closed loop. And yes, new additions to the farm family in the form of a lamb or two.