Cold weather in the kitchen garden always makes me anxious. Cold temperatures in early spring mean just planted seeds may rot or just germinated crops could die; summers that stay cold mean heat-loving plants will produce late if at all; and while fall and winter cold is welcome when it sweetens roots and hardy greens, really deep cold is not and the distance between welcome and not welcome is small. Low thirties to mid twenties are welcome; low twenties aren’t so welcome; teens are most unwelcome and single digits are the worst.
I was traveling during the second week of November when the first cold spell of the season settled on the winter kitchen garden. From San Diego I watched the Lopez Island weather forecasts, trying to stay optimistic as each night’s temperatures dropped to the mid-twenties and lower. Before we left, I’d used more old hay to mulch the beds of winter roots, celeriac, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, carrots and beets, closed the low plastic tunnels protecting the mulched rows of mustard, arugula, radicchio, added a bit more mulch to the hardier kale, chard and mache and decided the mulch already on those really hardy leeks and Brussels sprouts would do. Thirteen hundred miles to the south, I could do nothing but tell myself that that these preparations would protect the plants from damage and that they’d emerge sweeter from the cold.
When I got home I found that the cold had been the unwelcome kind. Most plants would survive but it wasn’t pretty. The lush, green outer leaves of chard and kale I’d left a week before were black and rotting. So were the leaves of arugula and red mustard. Even the tops of the winter roots, the stalks of Brussels sprouts and the leaves of the leeks looked limp and battered. The only thing for it was to take knives and clippers to the greens, remove the rotting leaves and take heart from the healthy inner leaves that would continue to grow as the temperature warmed. And then I picked some Brussels sprouts, dug some roots, cut away bits of damage, roasted them and enjoyed their sweetness.
And as November turns to December the cold is back. This time I’m home and I’ve spread more mulch on roots and covered it with tarps. I even covered the clumps of kale and chard with Reemay and tarps, hoping to protect the new growth. Each evening and morning I check the temperature. It’s always colder than the forecast predicts, my kitchen garden lying in a different microclimate than the weather station’s spot. Experience tells me that the plants will come through the cold and that when temperatures rise I can remove the tarps and find healthy plants. But I still worry. The only consolation is the sunshine that accompanies this kind of cold. It lifts my spirits made anxious by the cold and makes it easier to be optimistic about the winter kitchen garden gamble.