Book review: “The Winter Harvest Handbook”

Winter Harvest HandbookIf you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been very excited about growing vegetables — primarily salad greens — through the winter months. I experimented with it last year, with enough success to want to try it again this winter.

I’ve found an excellent resource in Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook (Chelsea Green Publishing, 248 pp., $29.95). This author has done a wonderful job of answering questions I didn’t even know I had yet!

Coleman first wrote the book, “Four Season Harvest,” in 1992. In it, he describes how he and his wife, Barbara Damrosch (a first-rate author and gardener in her own right) visited France in the middle of winter and saw many gardens being used to grow vegetables at that time. It made for fascinating reading.

After working my way through that book, I read The Winter Harvest Handbook which contains a wealth of information based on Coleman’s and Damrosch’s experience since then.

In his introduction, Coleman writes, “Our farm in Maine is both traditional and nontraditional. We are traditional during the ‘growing season’ — the summer months — when we produce fresh vegetables for sale. But we also produce fresh vegetables for sale during the winter months — the ‘back side of the calendar,’ so to speak. We achieve that winter harvest by growing cold-hardy salad and root crops in simple unheated greenhouses.”

At the beginning of the book, there is a drawing of their farm which I have to admit to being envious of. There is the cool greenhouse, seed-starting greenhouse, cold frames, hoops, movable greenhouses, orchard, herb garden, farm stand and more. Obviously way more extensive than most gardeners could hope for.

But what I really like about this book is how Coleman and Damrosch have resolved to grow their winter veggies with low-tech systems that don’t rely on the use of electricity. Moreover, they share in the book what they’ve learned over the years to help their readers be as successful as possible.

In it, you’ll learn the huge importance of sunlight — something that is vital for crops growing when the days are short and the sun is low in the sky. You’ll also learn about cool and cold greenhouses, planting schedules, soil preparation, which crops are the most cold-tolerant, and how to deal with weeds, pests, insects and diseases organically. I like that.

Here are some interesting things I learned while reading The Winter Harvest Handbook:

1. Condensation on the inside of a hoop house or low tunnel (hoops covered with plastic or row cover) is to be expected. Coleman reports the moisture helps reflect back the soil’s warmth so it’s not something to be concerned about.

2. Using heavier row covers isn’t advised because they block 50 percent or more of the sunlight. And as mentioned above, your crops need every bit of sunshine they can get. Coleman conducted some experiments with the heavier row covers and found they helped minimally with soil temperatures at night.

3. It’s important to keep row covers (or plastic) pinned to hoops so they don’t rest on the vegetable plants. The condensation can freeze the covers to the plants’ leaves and cause damage.

4. Some of the hardiest vegetables for winter gardening include ‘Tadorna’ leeks, ‘Napoli’ carrots, mache (a.k.a. “corn salad”), claytonia (miner’s lettuce), baby-leaf mesclun mixes (salad greens), and ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ and ‘Olympic’ onions which are planted in late August and covered in November.

The book has lists of vegetable varieties that Coleman and Damrosch grow during the summer and winter growing seasons, which are based on their experiences and experimentation.

The author recommends the following businesses for locating cold-tolerant seeds and other growing supplies: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed, Fedco Seeds, Wood Prairie Farm and Graines Baumaux (this is a French company but you can select English at the top of the page so you understand what it says).

If you are intrigued by the notion of growing some winter vegetables, I heartily recommend this book. I figure if Coleman and Damrosch can grow crops successfully during their cold Maine winters, we should be able, too! The Winter Harvest Handbook is an excellent guide to this topic.