Fresh vegetables in winter are possible, even in colder climates

In the depths of winter, Niki Jabbour steps out of her suburban home and extracts fresh veggies from the endless produce aisle known as her backyard garden.

She reels off the choices: "carrots, parsnips, beets, scallions, kale, winter lettuces, arugula, parsley, mâche, tatsoi . . . "

This January luxury, you might think, must occur in California or Florida, but Jabbour gardens in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Like many gardeners in northern states and Canadian provinces, she has learned to extend the season by growing hardy veggies under covers. Climate change is a factor, in that milder winters make this enterprise more viable, but it still comes down to finding ways to wrap plants against the cold.

For Jabbour, a garden writer, broadcaster and Web publisher, this "undercover gardening" has been a part of her life for at least 20 years and is now fully expressed, both professionally and personally. Her family gets as much as three-quarters of the household produce from the garden. And she gets to tell the world about it, specifically in her new book, "Growing Under Cover."

Covered gardening takes a number of forms that drag the gardener into a maze of methods and terminology - cold frames, floating row covers, mini-hoop tunnels and polytunnels. Jabbour has a place in her heart for them all, and with good reason.

Without this sheltered approach, she could expect a limited growing season from late May to early October. But with about 70 percent of her garden now under some sort of cover, she can harvest as many as 30 winter crops.

The techniques and timing for covered gardening differ in hotter, more southerly regions, but the concept remains the same. Row covers and the like allow gardeners to extend the growing season on both ends, to shelter tender new seedlings and transplants, and to exclude insects and bigger pests - including deer - without chemicals.

There is something in the air, too, because more vegetable gardeners seem to be embracing the idea of growing year-round, perhaps influenced by the local food, small-farm models that have changed the agricultural landscape over the past couple of decades. The stay-at-home paradigm of the pandemic has also turned the focus toward the home garden and ways to mitigate food insecurity.

In my 150-plot community garden, where more winter row covers are seen now than before, the prospect is of a hillside of ghostly white shrouds protecting greens. In my plot, I have covered beds of fall-sown kale and collard greens, as well as lettuce. To have a fresh-from-the-garden salad in January is nothing short of kingly.

Jabbour advises beginners to start with a cold frame, essentially a sloped frame capped with a hinged, transparent lid of plastic or glass; it's hinged because it must be vented when winter days get too warm. Cold frames are great for starting seedlings a few weeks early and having transplants ready in April when you need them.

I find row covers the easiest device. Sink hoops of wire or pipes into your growing bed every three to four feet, and cover them with the long, narrow blankets of row cover, a spun synthetic fiber that allows light and rainwater to reach the growing bed. The cloth must be secured either by clips on the hoops or weights where the fabric meets the ground, or both.

Like Jabbour, I use either thick wire, cut to form the requisite arches, or quarter-inch PVC plumbing pipe. I set the pipe hoops in 12-inch sections of half-inch pipe that have been sunk into the ground. The covers come in two or three thicknesses, the thinnest offering protection against light frosts, the thickest against more frigid weather.

The hooped beds function in two other key ways. A row cover or shade cloth can be used to give spring transplants the protection they need from sun, wind and cold to prevent dire wilting.

And in the growing season proper, a light row cover or an insect-barrier fabric can protect plants from insect pests. This can make the difference between having a successful crop or not, without resorting to sprays. I'm thinking of flea beetles on arugula and eggplant, potato beetles on spuds, and cabbage butterfly worms and harlequin bugs on cabbages and related varieties. But there are rules; you have to ensure the cloth is laid before the pest arrives and is sealed against incursions. For plants that need pollinating, you have to peel back the barrier when your cucumbers, squash and beans, for example, are in bloom.

These various cloths are available from seed- and horticultural-supply companies. You can spend $20 to more than $100 for them, especially when purchasing long lengths that are cut as needed. But they last several seasons, and for a happily addicted gardener, they offer the bliss of growing plants year-round. Sources for the covers include Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com); Fedco Seeds (fedcoseeds.com); Territorial Seed (territorialseed.com); Gardener's Supply (gardeners.com); and Lee Valley (leevalley.com).

It is unseemly to covet the possessions of others, but I do cast a longing eye on Jabbour's ultimate row cover, namely a greenhouse named a polytunnel, or high tunnel, which has a frame covered in greenhouse-grade polyethylene. Fourteen feet wide and 24 feet long, it is a place of utility rather than ornament. Thrift is a virtue. She paid less than $3,000 for it; a similarly sized ornate, Victorian-style greenhouse would have been about $150,000, she said, laughing heartily.

Her polytunnel is unheated but traps the sun's rays. Jabbour told me that last week, with temperatures outside around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a toasty 66 degrees in the tunnel.

In summer, she can sit in a jungle of vertically trained tomato and cucumber vines, with the sides rolled up to provide ventilation and access for bees to turn blooms into fruit. She has squeezed a little patio with a bench in one corner, a place to relax with a cup of tea.

Such a greenhouse would be unbearably hot in the D.C. area from May to September, but as a retreat now, in the lengthening days of midwinter, it is a little slice of paradise.

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Garden tools can be cleaned, repaired and file-sharpened now in preparation for the growing season. Wipe them with an oiled rag to prevent surface rust. Tighten bolts on wheelbarrows and other equipment, and check tires for condition and inflation.

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