Yep, it's worth it...

A winter storm blew in this week. 

Our cozy homestead is sitting quietly under 10 inches of Colorado snow.  The fire is blazing as I sit here typing by the fire.  And my heart is full to bursting.

I have ample reason to be joyful.  A quiet house full of the ones I love ...  everyone asleep but me.  I just put my plant babies to bed for the night too.  I sat and stared a bit, looking admiringly at the first real sets of leaves that distinguish the Tuscan Kale from the Savoy Cabbage. Broccoli, Cauliflower and Collards.  

These cold weather crops are the first seeds that I plant each year, and they carry with them the hope that my garden will not always be asleep under a blanket of snow.  These tiny winter promises of future food abundance keep me sane as the last few months of cold weather drag on.  Our storage vegetables were sparse due to the early deep freeze last fall,  so starting fresh for next year's crop is exciting.

This Spring... I have more than just my seedlings in the basement to celebrate and keep me sane.  This is the first year I have a crop of winter greens that actually survived the winter.  It's been a few years in the making.

So this is why my heart is so full tonight.  It's hard to describe the thrill I felt  as the snow was falling this afternoon, I crunched out into the frozen side yard, crawled inside our simple hoop house and harvested this gorgeous basket of color:  

 Perhaps it's the drab landscape that my eyes are used to this time of year that makes this about the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I'VE EVER SEEN.  

Or perhaps it's the fact that I thought all of my efforts of planting the seeds this fall was wasted when the deep freeze hit and everything seemed lost.  Shortly after the heartbreak I could be heard saying things like "I've decided I don't want a winter garden! I need a rest!  Who needs to be worried about plants under cover all winter.  It's just too much and I'm not sure it's worth it!"

It's true. I was SO hopeful to have a bounty of winter greens - so amazed at the beauty of the tiny seedlings when they first got their start in the fall... and planning on having a small crop to sell or trade with neighbors.  OUCH - it hurt to think they were all gone. 

Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Though my multi-colored carpet of greens isn't as lush and full as I had hoped (we did lose about 2/3 of the total we planted) - what DID survive thrills me.  1/3 of that beautiful driveway garden is STILL a lot of greens!!!  I've planted new seedlings in the bare spots - and being inside that little dome covered in snow (when everything else outside is quiet and dormant) feels magical.

These long winter days when my little house full of girls is messy, chaotic and loud - I can escape to my hoop full of greens and pick... eat... and think.   It won't be long now until we are all outside, working, sweating and playing... but for now - this is good.  

I can't help myself as I'm harvesting for a salad or omelette... for every four or five leaves picked - two get shoved into my mouth.  The spicy bite of Arugula and Tatsoi mustard, my beloved Italian Kale, a few leaves of smooth spinach, and the wonderful texture of Asian Mizuna.  YUM.

The closeness to the soil, these leaves spending only a split second in my hand and then being eaten so fresh - seem to carry with them superpowers that I can almost feel as I eat them. 

In our climate - the first home grown and harvested salad would not normally arrive on our table until late April or early May.  To be picking a beautiful salad in February on a day with a high of 22 degrees ... still kinda blows my mind.  

A few years ago, I'd read about growing cold hardy crops under cover.   We'd experimented with cold frames, tried keeping things alive in our greenhouse but had never succeeded at keeping things alive through the winter.  I got more determined last year (after reading Eliot Coleman's book 'The Winter Harvest Handbook') and purchased Remay (cloth frost blanket) and used it inside of a hoop house to cover things, but lost most of it by January.  

We finally got the help we needed after meeting some local friends who were operating a small CSA in a nearby town.  I reached out to her via Facebook - asking for a tour of her farm.  Hannah and Simon have become dear friends.  Besides nominating us for Mother Earth News' Homesteader of the Year  - (that was all Hannah's doing...) they have generously shared with us their knowledge, experience and friendship.

Some of the things we were doing wrong in our previous attempts at winter gardening were:  

  • trying to keep mature crops alive too long vs. planting new ones (at the end of the season, some were weak with aphids and were just done)
  • not planting the winter seedlings early enough in the fall to develop a good enough root system to withstand the cold temps
  • not using the correct greenhouse plastic on the outside of the hoop
  • not planting on the southern exposure side of the house with optimal winter sun
  • not building the hoops out of metal - we tried pvc which collapsed under the weight of heavy snow

Even this year with a partial successful harvest - we have learned more about how we can improve.  There will be changes for next year - a tighter setup and tweaks here and there.  I'm filled to the brim right now with optimism and excitement.  The success and failure of this past year (like every year prior) has given me more resolve, more inspiration, and more convicing that yep,  it's all worth it.  



Embracing Heartbreak

This November, we returned to California for my grandmother's memorial.  The temps in Colorado dropped drastically while we were away.  Though the weatherman had predicted temps in the 40s and 50s for the week, an 'Arictic Freeze' swooped south from Alaska.  The weather in Colorado went from 60 degrees and sunny,  to 10 below zero.  

A 70 degree drop in the space of 24 hours.

Though our neighbors and friends who were on duty to help feed animals and vent greenhouses did a GREAT job caring for the place, there are things that I might have done (and wouldn't ask them to attempt) if I'd been home to think about saving things.

While I was in California with family enjoying 70 degree weather in November... 

This was the reality back on the homestead:

A typical snow in November wouldn't have done any damage to the cold weather crops we had out in the garden still... cabbage, kale, collards & peas can usually tolerate a snow - and temps even down into the 20's.  But 10 below zero?  

Nope.

If I'd have only been home I could have picked cabbage, covered kale, harvested a TON of veg and frozen or dehydrated more.

But I wasn't home.  (And I'm truly grateful to have been with family for such an important time.)  But it was VERY hard to return home to this harsh, wintery reality.

After our long road trip, I ventured into the garden in the dark. I picked one of our TWENTY-TWO cabbages that were buried in the snow - hopeful that I might be able to sautee it with enough garlic and olive oil to salvage it's flavor.  Sadly, it was frozen solid - all the way through.  Even after a sautee - it was a mouthful of watery mush.  This is why greens and vegetables are typically blanched before freezing.  The cell structure is damaged by freezing when the vegetables are in raw form. 

What about fermenting?  I had hoped to store these cabbages in the cellar, and then turn many of them into sauerkraut for winter storage.  But fermenting, too requires that you begin with fresh, undamaged vegetables.  Nope.  None of these TWENTY-TWO cabbages would become sauerkraut.

IF only I'd known that these TWENTY-TWO beautiful cabbages should have been picked and stored before the trip!  Did I mention there were TWENTY-TWO of them??

Those first couple of days I picked armfuls of frozen kale - rinsing them off and sauteeing them too.  Because they didn't hold as much water - these were a bit more tasty when crisped up in the pan.  The flavor was more sulfury, instead of the typical fresh and sweet flavor that the cold weather usually adds.

I whizzed batches of this kale into some kale pesto.  Since this method requires a quick blanch and puree.  This, too - was ok - but not like it could have been if I'd picked it before the hard freeze. 

The 'IF ONLY' kept creeping in.   We didn't lose any animals in the weather - and for that I was grateful.  But the loss of these plants was just as much of a heartbreak to me.  

I start my cold weather seedlings in my basement in late January, or early February.  This means, these twenty-two cabbages, rows of kale and collards I lost had been under my care for more than 10 months of the year.  Watering, transplanting, moving to greenhouse, hardening them off, mulching them, rinsing off aphids,  picking off slugs.  

In actuality, I've probably invested more work into them - than the animals that we raise for meat.  These plants would have provided us with nutrient-dense greens for at least a couple more months or longer - if I had been able to pick, store or cover them.

After the snow melted, the unpicked brassicas began to stink.  The odor of rotting cabbage began to waft toward the front door.  It was time to face facts. I needed to feed them to the animals.  This, at least brought some solace.  The rabbits and chickens were able to draw some nutrients from these dear plant babies of mine.

If I WAS relying completely on our own hard work to provide food for our family (like many do in other parts of the world - and have in the past) - the heartbreak would go much deeper.  

The reality of losing so much food would not cause mere heartbreak - it would likely feel more like panic. 

The effect on the health of a family - struggling through a hard, long winter without the necessary vitamins and minerals that vegetables supply (not to mention flavor) would be terrible.

I DON'T enjoy buying vegetables from someone else after I've grown my own all year. Even supporting a small, local organic grocery store is tough for me.  (It's been hard on the budget already this month! )

But I am once again thoughtful of my ancestors who knew how to grow food.  Thoughtful of the small, sustainable farms who make their living by working with the soil and what nature offers.  Thoughtful of the years that it takes to really absorb the knowledge, experience and skill needed to survive.  

This is not something I should expect to have mastered after only 4 years of homesteading.

This is a lifelong, hard-earned skill.

I am learning through these mistakes.  SO VERY MUCH.

It's December.  The garden beds are now covered in heavy mulch.  We have some frozen, blanched collards in the freezer, some dehydrated greens, frozen tomatoes, some canned tomatoes, our rabbit & chicken meat in the freezer - and a good supply of winter squash in the basement.  Our winter hoop house greens are still alive - (at least half of them are) and we have lots of potted herbs in our sunroom.   I choose to be thankful for that.

AND...

I choose to remind myself that my children will go into adulthood with more experience and wisdom about raising food, homesteading & sustainability than I did.  

That is enough to balance out the winter hearbreak for now.