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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Here's my latest article for the Feb/March issue of Northwest Renovation Magazine.

The Latest Dirt

OK. It’s cold out. I’m sitting here, inside my cozy little brick house and there is a nice frost out on a sunny late fall morning. I finally turned on the furnace and lit the fireplace. When I go out, I will wear a beret and a scarf. I will probably make a pot of soup for dinner. I love this time of year.

Now that there is a bit of a chill in the air, I bet you think that the gardening season is over. Au contraire! There is so much you can do during the winter months, it is almost dizzying. While most people see winter as a time to put away the garden tools and tuck the garden in for the season, I find that there are plenty of things you can be doing to get ready for spring and continue the pleasures of gardening. Winter is a more important gardening season than you might think. There is composting to be done, winter vegetables to put in, bulbs to plant, and wildlife to feed.

There are also plenty of plants that you can grow during the winter. You can strategically plan a winter garden with color and scent to enjoy when there is not much else happening out there. Your winter garden doesn’t have to be a boring and bare landscape. Choosing decorative plants that will look good during the colder months is more a matter of thinking about bark, berries, and shape. Many plants, such as Japanese maple, have unusual colors of bark. Other trees, like the Japanese pagoda tree, have interesting fruits or seeds that form during the fall and winter. Deciduous vines like wisteria or deciduous shrubs like ponicirus can form strange, twisting branches that look like strange and surreal sculptures in the winter. Look for some evergreen groundcovers to place in your garden as well. Hens and Chickens work very well in the winter, as well as different kinds of hardy succulents. Try out garden sculptures and other landscaping features to make your garden attractive during the winter.

Decorative gardening aside, I find vegetable gardening in the winter to be easy and gratifying. Winter gardening is really about extending the growing season. Many people start their gardens in April and end them in September or October. But some vegetables can be grown earlier in the spring and later in the fall and some can even grow over winter. Winter gardening isn’t hard but it is easier in places with a mild climate like the Willamette Valley. There are less of the pests that bother summer crops as the weather gets cooler and because there is plentiful rainfall in the winter, watering is usually not needed for a winter garden. By growing vegetables of your own in the winter you might actually save money because produce in stores is more expensive in winter.

The best time to plant most winter garden vegetables is late summer or early fall so they are strong and ready for when the temperatures drop. Depending on what you grow, you can harvest in winter and early spring. A trip to your favorite garden center will provide you with an amazing supply of seeds and seedlings to get you started. Try planting broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, brussel sprouts (my favorite), leeks, carrots, and cauliflower. Peas can be planted in the winter for an early spring harvest. Some herbs do fine in a mild-ish winter like sage, rosemary, and thyme. I love having fresh herbs in the winter to flavor soups and stews. Fresh from-the-garden produce simply tastes better than its supermarket counterpart and there is something incredibly satisfying about pulling a delicious carrot out of January’s mucky soil, or cutting fresh brussel sprouts when the snow is on the ground. Which reminds me, if you live where the soil regularly freezes, mulch is a necessity. Just be sure to apply the mulch to your vegetable bed before the ground freezes to provide good insulation. Straw is a good choice for winter mulch. Your mulch should be removed in the early spring to allow the soil to warm.

Now that you have planned and planted your winter garden, it’s time to get cozy in front of a fire with a hot cup of coffee or tea and your favorite garden book and daydream about that greenhouse you put on your Christmas list. Lastly, don’t forget to feed the birds; they need some winter attention too. Have a great winter season in your garden and here’s to dirt under your nails. Cheers!

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