Last week we had our first real freeze. What wind there was in our little vegetable garden flapped the stiff, unyielding leaves of the tomato and black kale plants. By noon, the temperature had risen above freezing. The tomato vines were droopy and those fruits that remained on the vines were water soaked with drops of water beginning to form on their surfaces. The kale seemed no different than before.
If you’re in central Indiana, the “living history museum” Conner Prairie Farm is well worth seeing. Among its permanent features is Prairietown, a recreated pioneer community set in 1836. Prairietown has several homes that represent the various people that would have been found in and around such a community; there are, for instance, a prosperous family from Kentucky and a family of hardscrabble pioneers. There is also a blacksmith shop, a pottery shop, an inn, a doctor’s office, and a schoolhouse. “Historic interpreters” dressed in period clothing perform first-person impressions of the people of Prairietown and interact with visitors in character. At Christmas time, Conner Prairie Farm presents a special program that is set on Christmas Eve. In the evening, visitors go from house to house observing how different households celebrated the night before Christmas. The Kentuckians prepare for a dinner party complete with fine crystal glasses and a multiple course meal. In the windowless cabin of subsistence pioneers, the husband is away and the wife, with babe on arm, prepares for winter and treats visitors to a demonstration of the art of sausage making. That and the few vegetables they could preserve were apparently what they ate during the long winter. Life was tough for a lot of people on the frontier, and winter was particularly grim.
Our tomatoes were killed outright by the freeze. Ice crystals formed within their cells, and that’s always lethal. They had survived frost earlier, and of course frosts too can kill plants. But it’s not frozen cells that gets them; it’s dehydration and the resulting cell membrane damage. Plants have spaces between and outside their cells (the apoplast) that allow air to diffuse in and out and carbon dioxide to be taken up for photosynthesis and oxygen released to the atmosphere. The apoplast contains water too, and as temperatures fall, ice can form in these intercellular spaces. This intercellular ice causes water to flow out of the neighboring living cells into the intercellular spaces where it too freezes. As the amount of intercellular ice increases, more and more water flows out of cells, membranes rupture, and cells die.
Our kale, on the other hand, was fine; it’s quite cold tolerant, as are brassicaceous plants in general and many “greens”. These hardier plants differ from their more tender cousins, like tomato, by adapting to cold temperatures and accumulating soluble sugars and other low molecular compounds inside their cells. These act as antifreezes that inhibit cellular ice crystal formation and dehydration, and they stabilize delicate cell membranes. For the gardener, cold acclimation is a boon: not only can you continue to harvest fresh into winter, but your produce has a sweeter, richer flavor. Some crops such as parsnip and turnip certainly can be eaten in fall but are really best after they’ve spent a winter under snow.
Lots of people find winter a forbidding time. The nights are long, and the days can be cold and gray; the late spring snows make winter seem eternal. If you’re among them, don’t despair. It’s not 1836, and even if you were a subsistence pioneer, your diet need not be too tough during winter. With a little planning and a root cellar or a corner of your garage or basement that remains above freezing, you can eat your own produce all winter long. In addition to what you leave in the ground, many crops are easily stored; carrot, cabbage, brussels sprouts, onion, leek, shallot, beet, potato, and winter squashes are examples, but by no means is that an exhaustive list. And you can always freeze (corn and broccoli do well) or can (tomato) the fruits of your garden.
Indeed, winter is time for designing your next garden and planning the sowing and planting schedules. The Sumerians reckoned that this process—this specific and manual forethought—was the basis of civilized society: making something out of nothing, or a lot out of a little. Please see Samuel Noah Kramer’s classic The Sumerians for an illustration of the first known “farmer’s almanac” from about 2000 B.C.
At Burpee we offer our new version of last year’s app, ‘Garden Time’, that answers the question,”When?”, the anxious moment for all new gardeners. Very soon, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden will have their websites up with all their new 2014 blockbuster varieties of vegetables, flowers, bulbs, herbs and perennials.
So settle into a comfy chair and start gardening!