the kale bed in early December

the kale bed in early December

I’ve been harvesting from my garden all through the winter. It’s not the coldest, snowiest of places, here in Cordovaland, but I’d say it’s cold enough, and snowy enough. People are shocked to see me out there, lifting the snowy skirts of my plastic hoop houses, and pulling out live foods. Basically what I pull out is leeks, and lots of kale. They are both incredibly, jaw-droppingly hardy, but kale especially. I just adore that damn plant. Takes a licking and keeps on… It’s tenacity is inspirational. If I pastored a big tent revival church, I’d preach kale.

But having a winter garden covered in plastic means keeping a rough tab on how much snow is piling up, and shoveling/sweeping the hoops off occasionally, to keep the plastic from ripping. Though I have been really impressed at the strength of this greenhouse plastic I got from Peaceful Valley Farm (just so’s everyone knows, if you’re in the market for said material, call PVF and ask what they’ve got for “remnants,” these pieces are plenty big for home growers, and sell for 30 cents cheaper per ft!) I didn’t want to leave it unattended. We’re leaving Sunday for a month and a half, and so, on my long list of buttoning-up-the-old-ranch projects was to dig out the kale bed and harvest whatever was left.

The plastic was covered with a one foot blanket of soft light snow which fell just before our last cold snap. I had left the snow there to help insulate against the cold. It was down to 5-10 degrees for a couple of weeks. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to find under there.


frozen solid kale

Not surprisingly, what I found was a lot of frozen kale. I hacked it all off and brought it inside. Dunked it in a big bowl of water, trimmed off the limp, slimy leaves and viola! About two thirds of those frozen solid leaves perked right



up into nice fresh greens. The rest went to my chooks.

I ought to clarify that not all kale is this headstrong. I grow Tuscan black and love it too, but it doesn’t last through November. What you need for a winter kale is Siberian or Russian kale. I grow the red kind ‘cuz it’s sooo purty. The curly green kinds are pretty hardy too. But my Siberian Red stumpy stems, with all the leaves harvested off, frozen in the ground all winter, even without cover, will sometimes sprout new leaves in the spring! Miniature uber-tender kale salads. All hale the kale!

But now you, who’ve never eaten and hardly seen a kale, are asking,

“But what do I do with it?”

Homegrown kale is mild and delicious. Harvested after a frost or two, it’s almost sweet. Hacked down mid-cold snap, it’s downright heavenly. I like to make a burly salad with thinly shredded kale, tart apple, and toasted walnuts, same as my Winter Mainstay Cabbage Salad. But when you cut the plants frozen, like I did yesterday, a lot of the leaves will be kind of soft for salading.

Fine for cookin’ though. I’d like to get more creative someday, but I have yet to get sick of this simple recipe:

Carmelized Onions and Winter Kale

add-kale-to-onionsSlice half an onion and saute in plenty of butter over med-low heat till soft and golden.

Wash and roughly shred a big heap of kale (it shrinks! Make sure you have plenty!) and add it to the pan. Put a lid on, keep the heat low and cook till the kale is tender, but still vivid green, five minutes or so. The water clinging to the leaves should be plenty, but add a teeny bit more if it gets too dry.

Salt to taste and enjoy!

Now, in case I got you creamin’ yer panties for some winter gardening info, here’s my fave two books:

  • The Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman
  • Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest: Cool Season Crops for the Year Round Gardener by Binda Colebrook


We have a pretty big house, since we both work at home. 1400 sq ft. It’s outfitted with a boiler and baseboard heating, but we hardly ever turn the thermostat on. That’s ‘cuz we heat with wood, and love it.

When we chose this house, a key convincing element was the very nice (if a tad small) cozy by the woodstovewoodstove, and 2 cords of truly dry firewood in the backyard. We moved here from a tipi-in-the-woods, creek-running-by lifestyle, and let me tell you– that woodstove saved my life. It’s not just the sight and sound of fire, which are pretty much universally loved, but the way a wood stove heats that I adore. When you heat with wood, there are lots of temperature fluctuations. It gets cold at night and when you leave for very long, but you can always make it toasty when you feel like being warm. The house is heated unevenly—the bathroom’s always freezing in winter, and I kind of love that too. I love the way a wood stove makes it warm and cozy in the middle, but chilly around the edges. The even, constant temperature of heating systems is just not my gig.

I always think of heating with wood as a preference, something we do because we love it. But we are also motivated by saving diesel. We never thought much about it until last winter. Before we left for three weeks at Christmas we had 100 gallons of heating oil put in our tank and set the thermostat at 50 degrees. When we got back, the tank was out! 100 gallons in less than a month, just to keep the house at 50?!?!?!

We burn through probably 4 cords of wood per winter. Say it took 150 gallons a month to keep our house at a reasonable 65; that would be 1200 gallons for 8 months of winter. Meaning a cord of wood- which G can cut and haul home in less than two trips (one day’s work, plus probably 4 gallons of gas) is worth 300 gallons of oil! Aside from the environmental aspect, each cord of wood saves our family more than $1200! A winter’s worth of heating with wood saves us almost $5,000!!!!

We burn mostly regular firewood- spruce and hemlock- which my husband cuts with a small chainsaw. But we also burn whatever scavenged leftover building materials I can find, and sometimes pallets. We have a Community Burn Pile here, which is awesome- keeps all lumber scraps, cleared brush and cardboard (not recycleable here) out of the dump. It could be much, much better (it’s not set up to scavenge, even though lots of people do, and often the best bits are already in the fire half burned) but it’s better than nothing. A few people are conscientious and put good stuff off to the side, and the fire’s not always going. So there’s often goodies.

This is where you city people come in. You maybe don’t have a burn pile to peruse, but there’s doubtlessly plenty of wood scavenging opportunities. Cities are full of new construction, just stop and ask one of the guys where their scrap pile is, every piece you haul off is one they don’t have to haul. Plus, I’ve found that most people have, somewhere in them, a voice of thrift. They might not want to go to the trouble themselves, but they like it if someone else reuses what they’re throwing out (exempted from this basic human decency are most grocery store owners, who will go to great lengths to keep you from getting their trash).

Also cities must be full of out-of-commission pallets, what with all that stuff getting trucked in, day in and day out. Look in the phone book under shipping companies, or freight. Call and ask first, or just go by. Of course, to get pallets you’d need a truck, a rack on your car, or a burly bike trailer. The standard size pallet is 3 ft x 4 ft. They’re pretty easy to cut up with a skill saw, just be careful not to hit any nails or staples.

If you live somewhere not too cold, you could easily heat your home with scrap wood. One big benefit of scrap is it’s already dry and cured. Even when it is wet, from sitting out in the rain, for some reason it burns better than similarly wet logs.

Anyone have advice, tips, or good stories to share about scrap wood scavenging?

So now, on to how to freeze your pipes!

It’s been cold here, 5-15 degrees, for more than two weeks. Pipes are freezing all over town. But how we froze ours was like this:

First we ran out fuel (the boiler, which we don’t much use to heat the house, we do use for our hot water) on a Saturday night. They’ll deliver on Sundays, but it’s extra expensive, so I waited till Monday morning to call.

They came Monday afternoon, put in our usual can’t-afford-to-fill-it 100 gallons, I fired the boiler back up, we had hot water, no problem.

Three days later, during the night, the pipes to the kitchen and bathroom froze. But not bad, there was about half an hour of panic, with the faucets on full but nothing coming out. Then, sputter, sputter, all’s well! Checked under the house, no burst pipes, phew!

We turned the thermostat up, thinking to really heat things up.

But it wouldn’t come on.

The long and short of it is that (I think) the baseboard pipes get a residual heat from the hot water system. When we ran out of fuel and didn’t use any hot water for 36 hours, the baseboard pipes froze, somewhere under there. Probably didn’t help that the corners and edges of our house were freezing cold, as I mentioned above loving. Anyway, we didn’t notice because we don’t use the boiler for heat. So they had a good three more days to get a nice, hard freeze going before we caught on. Then it took a few more days of running a heater under the house to thaw them.


Still seems to be no burst pipes though. Lucky us. But we’ve learned our lesson, when it’s really cold, we’ll keep the sink running, and keep the thermostat set high.


This may seem a strange time to be thinking garden, but the deepest depths of winter is when I think most about my garden. I do my best to keep notes all summer, but I don’t sit down and process what I’ve learned until January. So now, as you can see by my garden review, I’m processing. In preperation for a dive into the seed catalogs.

We might as well get this out of the way: I adore seed catalogs to the point of addiction.

I try to limit myself to ordering from just two catalogs, and two or three varieties of each vegetable, but it’s hard. All those different colors and shapes of carrots, how could I choose just one? In my defense, I’ve found that in our marginal climate, variety can be hugely important. Tuscan Black kale, gorgeous and delicious though it is, freezes out months earlier than Red Siberian (I grow both, and just harvest my Tuscan first).

Next summer though is going to be a very different garden. We’re leaving for some as yet unknown big city down south in early August (my husband’s going to law school!), and around here, not much matures before August. Lettuce, radishes, broccoli, bunching onions. Going through the seed catalogs is going to be a serious lesson in restraint!

So, my point was to share my faves, and I definitely think you should order real paper catalogs– there’s nothing like curling up in a chair by the woodstove with a hot cup of coffee and a stack of seed catalogs!

Seeds of Change is by far the most eye-candy garden catalog. And all their seed is organic. But I get some “too-smooth” vibe off of it and wasn’t too surprised to hear it’s owned by Mars.

Seed Saver’s Exchange is the folks I feel best buying from. Their main thing is an actual exchange you can sign up ($30) to be a part of– you get a giant book of varieties grown and offered by other seed savers all over the country. You basically just pay for shipping and they send you some. But for the rest of us, SSE also has a regular catalog, full of beautiful heirloom varieties.

However, considering all the varieties I need to try, I can’t afford to order all my seed from the above two, so I also order lots from Pinetree Garden Seeds. Their deal is xtra small packages of seed, for a very low price. Who really needs 500 broccolis anyway? Their seed packets are plenty big for most things (except carrots, and anything you plant real thick to harvest as a baby salad) and cost around $1.

Well kids, enjoy! And be careful!

“It’s a sad and stupid thing to have to proclaim yourself a revolutionary just to be a decent man.”

-David Harris

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