Surviving a Winter Storm

Peter Heffelfinger
Photo: Evelyn Adams

by Peter Heffelfinger

During the two weeks of snow cover in February, it was a welcome sight to find winter-hardy flowers and frost-resistant vegetables surviving our mild martime version of a “polar vortex.” The saving grace for the plants was the absence of wind, along with bright sun. It almost felt like maple syrup season in New England: snow covering the ground, sunny all day, a bit chillier at night to make the sap flow. But this is the Northwest, no frozen ground six feet deep, no below zero temperatures to really kill off flora. The world stays green here.

Under the tall trees in my backyard, the hellebores were weighed down a bit by the 8-10 inches of snow, but had no problem getting through the freezes down to 20 degrees. The downward-facing blossoms of my traditional varieties had their nectaries available for the recent influx of over-wintering Anna’s hummingbirds. As a rule, hummingbirds get a maximum of 20 percent of their energy needs from flower nectar or sugar water feeders; they still need 80 percent protein in their diet to survive. Suet blocks and bird seed stations don’t work with those long, needle-like bills and even longer tongues. The moths and gnats batting against the kitchen windows at night, even during the cold weather, must have sufficed.

Anemone Seed Pods
A few weeks later, with warmer temperatures, the Anna’s were buzzing about, seeking out the cottony fluff of the Japanese anemone seed pods, which I leave standing all winter for birds to use in the spring for nests. It is a pod-to-bird connection, a botanical-ornithological Hail Mary pass completed miraculously after a four-month-long spiral in the air. The Anna’s will also be among the first to visit the flowering red currant bushes, the welcoming beacons for the migrating hummers returning from their winter refuges in Central America.

The kitchen garden of herbs in pots, close to the south-facing side of the house, survived the cold under temporary layers of row cover or a tarp: curly parsley, chives (both standard and garlic versions), culinary bay, sage, and rosemary. The flat-leaf parsley got hit since I didn’t cover the pots until after the initial freeze. But I have a supply of Italian parsley under row-cover hoops in the main garden several miles away. Always pays to have a backup.

Winter Leeks
Out in the vegetable patch, the winter leeks held up well, the stubby green leaves sticking out above the snow like miniature palm trees. A bit bedraggled of course, but once the soggy outer leaves are removed, the inner cores are firm and undamaged. The yellow Copra storage onions are gone by now, but the garden leeks become the fresh onion du jour all winter long, whether sauteed by themselves in butter and a dash of wine, or mixed into stir fries, stews, or soups. Leeks and stored Yukon Gold potatoes combine as well to provide the traditional winter comfort soup. Along with the shallots and garlic heads stored in paper bags, one can have fresh alliums until spring.

After last year’s mild winter, I left this year’s fall endive, arugula, mizuna mustard and spinach unprotected; but the extreme cold did them in. Still, the hardy mache survived, though not in lush proportion. I did manage to keep a late summer planting of cilantro alive, under a low cover of clear plastic, well into December, until either voles or cold cut the stalks down. The supremely hardy kales, however, carried on all winter, including Lacinato, Siberian Curled, and Red Russian, as well as thick bushes of collards.

Portuguese Kale
My favorite winter brassica is Portuguese Kale, a perennial that expands over successive years into a large bush with wide, flat leaves impervious to cold. It sets seed each year, but does not die back like most other biannual kales; each spring the bush is surrounded with new seedlings. My original seed packet was a gift from a couple who brought it back after walking the Camino across Northern Spain. The thick central stalks, once dried, serve as lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on the path. Never underestimate the powers of kale.

Last fall I found nursery starts of Purple Winter varieties of both broccoli and cauliflower, which the labels listed as maturing by Christmas, then extending into January and February. Since it was mid-September already, I covered them at first with a temporary hoop house of Reemay to get them jump-started. Once established, I withdrew the cover to get them acclimated to the cool nights. The late start, or the winter cold, held them back a bit, but small broccoli heads eventually began to form in February and on into March, with the thick leaves holding well against the snow. I am still hoping for Purple Cauliflower, but better late than imported from down south. I also await the over-wintering Purple Sprouting Broccoli that will make a flurry of small heads starting in April. Perhaps the color purple is a genetic trait for extra hardiness?

The Brussels Sprouts, of course, held on as usual, in spite of aphids appearing in late summer to infest the growing tops. I snapped off the worst affected apical meristem buds and dosed the entire plants with Safer insecticidal soap. The little mini-cabbages on the stalk mature from the ground upward, a slow elevator of ripening before they either blacken or sprout. To cook: cut the sprouts in half, place flat side down in an oiled roasting pan, bake until just browned on the bottom, then serve sprinkled with balsamic vinegar. A brassica delicacy.

You don’t realize how big the Skagit Valley commercial crop of Brussels Sprouts is until you come across endless acres of them just before Thanksgiving. Many for seed, I assume, but some for fresh consumption as well. In bright sunlight, the expanses of green (and some purple!) are autumn echoes of the intensely colored tulip fields in spring. Except that when you stop the car to take a photo, you are the only lookie-loo visitor in sight. Fall vegetable tourism, no traffic.

Cover Crop of Rye
The last fall planting for winter is a cover crop of annual rye that will cover the beds like a hardy green lawn. A stable 1-2 inches tall during the winter, the rye develops a thick mass of roots to hold the soil in place during the rains. Rye plants are not a significant source of nitrogen, but they protect the soil, maintaining tilth. Once the rye starts to take off in early spring, let it grow to a maximum height of 8-10 inches. Cut the tops and leave in place, then till or turn over with a fork. Let the fresh rye material break down for 10 days or so, then till or turn again to create fluffy beds ready to plant.

There are other, more nitrogenous cover crops available, such as crimson clover, winter peas, or fava beans; but I have found winter rye to be the simplest and easiest, as well as the cheapest solution. Plus, when the rest of the continent east of the mountains is in deep freeze, I like to admire the green mat that covers the Northwest garden like a protective cloak. Never forget to give thanks for our temperate, maritime climate, especially in these ecologically threatened times. Northwest Gardening

Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.