Almost the new year. I’m having fresh lettuce for dinner…you?

Isn’t it funny how different people’s definitions of words can be?  You can find the word ‘fresh’ plastered all over the grocery store can’t you?  If I had more time on my hands I might find a manager and ask for clarification.  But alas, I’m too busy for such shenanigans.  Busy with things like…growing fresh food.  Yes, even now.

Yummy winter baby spinach from just the other side of my front door.

Yummy winter baby spinach from just the other side of my front door.

I know it’s been remarkably warm lately and it can be hard when we get these lulls to remember it’s winter.  I think the temperatures this coming week will remind us all.  But even now in what is clearly (soon to be anyway) winter, I refuse to go back to the industrial food system if I can help it at all.  And for the most part, I can.

Look, I still make allowances for things like flours and coffee.  Mostly because I haven’t yet figured out how to make them happen on my own.  Like everyone in Maine when it comes to fresh vegetables, I have to go back to the grocery store when the growing season ends.  The difference is that my growing season doesn’t end.

Come again?

Yeah, it’s true.  I grow fresh vegetables year round for my family and, to a lesser extent, my CSA members.  I have several ways of making this happen.  The first is the high tunnel.

I make all my own hoops with special benders and cut the wood from the farm for the rest.

I make all my own hoops with special benders and cut the wood from the farm for the rest.

A high tunnel is just what it sounds like.  It is not a greenhouse, not necessarily.  It’s hard to nail down exact definitions for words like greenhouse, hot house, hoop house and the like.  Most people use them interchangeably.  For the purposes of our discussion I will use hoop house and high tunnel to mean the things I use on my farm.  That is, I don’t use any supplementary heat in mine.  No wood, oil or propane and I don’t inflate two layers of plastic for insulation.  Nope, mine simply use a very simple process called the greenhouse effect.  All the heat I need comes from the sun.  But that’s because I don’t try to grow things like tomatoes and zucchini in the winter.  In the ‘off season’ I switch my focus to what are known as ‘cold hardy crops’.

Low tunnels just before I open them.

Low tunnels after shoveling just before I open them.

Again, here it can be difficult to pin down a definition but for my purposes the cold hardy crops are those that survive winter in my climate (Central Maine USDA hardiness zone 4-ish) without supplemental heat.  The list is actually longer than you might think but for the purposes of cash flow I limit it to spinach, lettuce and salad turnips.  If you’re following along at home you can try lots of other things like mache, mustard greens, kales, chards, etc.  See a pattern?  Dark, thick, leafy, greens tend to do pretty well in these conditions.  These conditions being not a lot of light, a fair amount of snow and a freeze thaw cycle to beat the band.

Along with my high tunnels I use low tunnels.  Again, they’re just what they sound like.  Some people call them caterpillar tunnels but these are actually something different.  Caterpillar tunnels are usually tall enough to walk in if just barely.  Low tunnels are only a couple of feet high at the top of their arches.

Low Tunnels 004

Above is one that I just opened after shoveling snow for a few minutes.  This is one of my favorite things to show people who visit the farm because people have been separated from their food for so long they’ve forgotten what is possible.  When I show them beds of green and red lettuce adjacent to a couple feet of snow they look at me like I’m a deity.  This isn’t even revolutionary.  It’s just basic science.  The biggest thing in our climate to damage these plants is actually…wind.  If there was a way to keep the wind off and make sure the spinach would be covered with a foot of snow that would be OK too.  Snow is a great insulator (it can keep the ground from freezing…spinach too).  Except of course that it would be even more difficult to harvest.

But our winters can be really cold, really windy and often not very snowy.  So I use the low tunnels to give the plants a little extra protection and myself an easier work load (seriously can you image trying to shovel snow off spinach without damaging it?).  That’s all they need.  They’re pretty tough little things you know.  It’s really wonderful to spend a few minutes wading through knee-deep snow, shoveling if from low tunnels and the doors of high tunnels to open them and find an island of rainbow summer in a sea of white snow winter.

Low Tunnels 007

Seed companies are helping. This is a very cold hardy lettuce mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds called ‘Yankee Lettuce Mix’. It’s keeping this Yankee happy this winter.

There are limitations, don’t get me wrong.  I can spend a very long time harvesting and cleaning lettuce and spinach in the winter.  In the summer I can harvest about twelve pounds of spinach from fifteen feet of a 30″ wide row in about twenty minutes, turn around and not even think I’ve made a dent.  In the winter it can take me over an hour and as much as ninety feet to get six pounds (typically what my csa members’ orders total every other week).  The same with lettuce.  This is less true if I’m harvesting for myself and my family.  We’re not as picky.  A spot of winter damage on the tip of a spinach leaf doesn’t bother me the way it does some people.

A lot of yellow leaves on the turnips don't affect their flavor except to signify they'll be sweeter (due to the cold).

A lot of yellow leaves on the turnips don’t affect their flavor except to signify they’ll be sweeter (due to the cold).

This time of year, as we settle into the really dark, really cold part of winter, things really slow down on the CSA front.  The trick to this winter growing thing is that nothing is actually ‘growing’.  The plants did all the growing they were going to do before Thanksgiving.  They have gone into a state of dormancy.  So when I cut a spinach leaf for an order in January, it isn’t replaced in less than a week by two more like it is in summer.  That spinach isn’t coming back.  Whatever was there by the time the cold set in early in December is what’s there for the winter.  So, about this time every year I stop listing spinach and lettuce on my order email each week, not because I don’t have any, but because I can’t meet demand without working harder than I want to.  I could probably harvest six pounds of lettuce but it would take me three or four hours.

Instead I just start pulling off enough for me and my family and let the plants sit there waiting.  Then, around the middle of March when the sun gets up there in the sky again and the daytime temps start to get up into the low fifties (you know, shorts and flip-flops weather) they’ll take off and start actually growing again.  Then it’s a race against time because at that point they’ll be growing for one thing only, seed production.

But until that time comes I can spend the winter months heading out the door and just down the steps to get a salad for dinner.  When I serve ‘fresh’ lettuce or spinach at my dinner table or at a New Year’s Eve party, I mean I just cut this a few minutes ago fresh.  It doesn’t get any closer to the true definition than that.  Local food.  Eat well – be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.