Friday, January 25, 2013

Gardening in Winter

"Why don’t we have baby carrots?” This is the question Chef Robert is asking me, in late January. Baby carrots are a staple of the beautifully designed gourmet plates that Robert sends out from the kitchen and in to the elegant dining room night after night. This is serious.

I would have carrots, I tell him, if it weren’t for the cats. And the nasturtiums. 

Robert looks at me sideways, with annoyance.
Two cats: double trouble

I had a whole bed of carrots in the top greenhouse—Rainbow, Nelson, Yellow Sun—but the kittens chose that bed for their playground. They trampled the greens and, just for fun (you know how kittens like to have fun) pulled out the roots, leaving little tiny premature carrots lying all over the ground. But you’ve seen my beautiful baby turnips, haven’t you?

“Yeah I’ve seen them. They’re white.”
Hakurei turnips, in January!

I had another two beds of carrots in the second greenhouse – you know, the one we keep warm. But the nasturtiums self-seeded and I let them climb the tables and now they’re draped all over the screened tabletops in a gorgeous jumble. You should see them! Gary says it reminds him of the Caribbean! I’ve been harvesting about 3 dozen flowers a week for garnish … and they’re orange and coral colored.

“And that has what to do with the carrots?” he asks. Impatiently. 
Acrobatic nasturtiums
 Well, the nasturtiums became infested with whiteflies. I can still harvest the flowers, and even the leaves are clean—at least the small ones are. But the whiteflies spread to the carrots and they sucked all the life out of the green tops. So the tops stopped growing and the roots stopped growing and … well … the carrots are not really worth harvesting.

“So,” (voice clipped) “ … when will we have carrots?” 
Cat atop the carrot seedlings.

I planted more carrots – two beds more, in fact – in the top greenhouse about a month ago, but the days are so short that they took forever to germinate. And the kittens keep scratching in the beds. I have chicken wire and plant trays all over the carrot rows but the cats get under the wire and toss the trays around. They make a game of it, hiding and chasing each other out and up and over the chicken wire. And so my seedlings are still tiny, and most of them aren’t doing too well. 

Are we carrots yet?
Robert sighs. “Ok so no carrots. What happened to the parsley?”

Well, I was picking bunches of it until a week ago … remember? But parsley is related to carrots so when the whiteflies got into the carrots they ruined the parsley too, and I figure that you can order parsley pretty cheaply this time of year, so …
At least somebody's enjoying the parsley.


I stand up and head for the door. Just as I’m about to make a clean exit, I hear,

“And kale?” He looks up at me. Grimly.

Oh. Kale. 

Remember the hurricane, I ask?

“That was 3 months ago.” Robert’s voice is flat. Irritated. 

Yes, well, I planted the kale in the top garden because of the groundhogs—they’re not quite as bad up there. But when the hoophouse blew down and the sheep got out and ate every head of cauliflower they ate the kale too. My plan was to harvest the kale growing outside through December and then start harvesting what I planted in the upper greenhouse. But I had to start harvesting the greenhouse kale early so it’s pretty picked over. Plus the gray aphids that jumped onto the kale from the savoy cabbage are getting a little out of hand. I tried to start some more kale in the fall but the week I transplanted them we had no sun, no sun at all!  So all but five of them rotted. But the five are growing well! In another three weeks or so …

Robert rolls his eyes. 
Too beautiful to eat?

But the collards are looking great, don’t you think? I can bring you at least three big bunches a week. And the chard is beautiful too.

“Kale is trendy right now; collards are not cool. And I hate chard.”

Case closed.

What I’d like to say, and what Robert would not like to hear, is this. 

So here’s the thing: January, in Pennsylvania, is a challenge. It’s not one of those other J-months when fat heads of broccoli and tight, red-ribbed rounds of radicchio make heroes out of farmers, when exponentially growing tomato plants are laden with plump green promise, when the grasshoppers and stink bugs are still too tiny to do damage. In those other J-months, plants want to grow. In January, the greenhouse is the only place in town for aphids and whiteflies to suck plant juices and for kittens to dig holes and deposit their doodoo. It’s not fair to judge me by January’s skinny roots. And, by the way, who else do you know that’s producing beautiful heads of lettuce in January?!
Photo taken January 25th. No lie!
But the truth is, I’m equally disappointed with the carrots, the kale, and the parsley … not to mention the arugula.

This week, I planted three rows of red-ribbed chicory. It’s colorful, and it’s trendy. It likes cool weather and it’s not related to carrots. I have high hopes for red-ribbed chicory. It’s Italian. It will remind Robert of Tuscany, or Venice.

Ladybugs to the rescue.
But it is still January. I’ve released 1500 ladybugs and a vial of lacewing eggs. I’ve cut an entire roll of chickenwire into garden-bed-sized pieces and introduced the cats to a litterbox filled with nice, loose kitty litter. Every day I wet down the beds so that they will be a little less diggable—for cats, that is. I stick dandelion diggers and trowels and wooden stakes in the beds—anything that might serve as a kitty impediment. And yet, one thing I know is true: I might solve the problems of now, but something else, something unpredictable, is bound to happen. Last year, rabbits created fur-lined birthing beds in the carrot greens, and mice eviscerated the beet seeds before they had a chance to germinate. Maria, the rambunctious Great Pyrenees pup trampled the lettuce. The outdoor wood furnace malfunctioned causing the ceiling-mounted heating elements to drip icicles and the chard to freeze. We brought in kerosene heaters, which spewed a coating of black dust over every, and I mean every, green leaf. Superstorms, deep freezes, equipment malfunctions, and animal invasions are facts of life. Especially in January.

On the bright side, there are no groundhogs in January. They are, it seems, smarter than us. They know better than to look for baby carrots when the ground is frozen.   

True Confession 1: Robert’s name is not really Robert.
True Confession 2: The real chef (whose name is not Robert) is nicer than Robert and would never say those things. 

But I know he thinks them.


  1. You are so brave - I admire your tenacity! Sonja

    1. I'd probably choose a different word, like desperation. But thanks.