Organic vegetables from your home garden all year long
By Eliot Coleman
You guys, I made a mistake. I bought the wrong book! Not that the Winter Harvest Handbook wasn’t awesome, inspiring, and great, but I kept getting the sense that I was missing something. That something was the information contained in this Eliot Coleman book from 1999, which a friend recently loaned to me.
Whereas Winter Harvest Handbook focused mainly on growing winter crops in a market-garden or CSA-farm scenario, Four-Season Harvest is all about the home garden. (Yes, I’m aware that 10 minutes of research and would have revealed this, but I’m here to serve you, dear reader, and prevent you from repeating my mistakes.)
Let’s dive right in and explore the many ways this book is influencing changes in my gardening life, starting this year.
My compost pile has always been OK… after a year, I do get compost, but it doesn’t move very fast, and I’ll admit that it occasionally gets smelly. It’s also never heated up for me, as well-maintained compost piles should. The past two years I’ve been adding dried leaves to it as “brown” material between the green layers, and this has greatly helped with the smell factor, and seemed to be an improvement overall, but still things were just not breaking down as quickly as I would have liked.
Enter Coleman’s very helpful chapter on composting. First of all, he does *not* recommend putting leaves in your compost pile, because apparently leaves are broken down primarily by fungi, while other compost ingredients are primarily broken down by bacteria. The leaves and their fungi don’t necessarily subtract from that, but they definitely don’t add to it. They can also end up slowing down the process when they clump together and form a dry, airless mass. I’ve broken up many of these in my own bin.
Rather than leaves, he recommends keeping a bale of straw (not hay) and sandwiching your green layers (vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, and the like) with a layer of straw. Because each stalk of straw is hollow, they help improve airflow, and they end up becoming a fuel to help heat up your pile. I just checked my pile and it’s still frozen solid, but as soon as it thaws I am getting a bale of straw to try this method out.
But what about all my poor old leaves? I have them all saved still, in bags! Coleman recommends using them to create leaf mold. Apparently leaf mold is a really great soil amendment for vegetables in the cabbage and carrot families. To make leaf mold, create a round wire column out of fencing, 3-4 feet in diameter, (much like what I made for my potato tower last year), add leaves and water, and leave them for around 2 years. I may need a couple of these for the amount of leaves our trees produce!
Soil structure and aerating
Coleman uses a broad fork to gently aerate the soil, rather than tilling, which can disturb soil structure in the long run. I’m going to look for one of these at the garden store.
He has a map of his own garden, with details on crop rotation, succession planting, etc. If I had more land to work with, I would honestly just make an exact copy of his garden design, because it is brilliant. However, instead of a 43’x40′ garden spot I have a 21’x6′ spot that is shaded for 7 months of the year by the neighbor’s house. Humph.
Cold frame and green house/high tunnel design, maintenance, and care are covered extensively in this book. There’s even a table of planting and harvest dates for winter cold frame veggies (I’ve added some of these to my garden calendar). I would like to add a cold frame; there are limits to what we’ll be able to do with our mini hoop house, as cute as it is. In order to really consider having greens from your home garden for 10 (maybe even 11-12) months, you really need a cold frame. Coleman recommends two 4’x8′ frames for each member of your family. YOWZA! That’s definitely not happening on my less-than-1/4 acre! I’m going to keep thinking about while being content with just my hoop house for this year.
Forcing endives and other root crops
There’s also a how-to on how to grow Belgian endives — it involves storing them in a root cellar, then sprouting them a few at a time in a bucket of wet sand under your kitchen sink. Very interesting stuff. He also gives details on sprouting cabbages, celeriac, beets and parsley root.
Finally, there’s several appendices full of descriptions of how to grow specific vegetables (including artichokes, and his technique is very interesting).
In short, I’m just going to have to buy my own copy of this book, even though I’ve totally blown my book budget for the entire year and it’s only March. I recommend this one even more than Winter Harvest Handbook, especially for those of us who only dream of raising fields of food while gardening for ourselves, in the city.