Last weekend, as I peeled potatoes and chopped up some onions and garlic for soup, I was thinking about how much I enjoy preparing healthy food that I’ve grown myself. And that pleasure is all the sweeter when there’s two feet of snow outside! For several months now, my garden has been buried beneath a thick blanket of snow. But my basement is still filled with food from my garden: potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squash. These easy-to-grow, easy-to-store crops keep me and my family well fed all winter long.
Even a modest size garden can yield a substantial crop of winter produce. In my own garden, I usually reserve about 1/3 of the space for those top four winter keepers: onions, garlic, potatoes and winter squash. As you plan your garden for the coming season, I encourage you to make room for one or two winter keepers. They’re some of the easiest crops to grow and will tide you right through to the next growing season.
What fun it is to grow potatoes. One of the catalogs I order from offers over 50 different varieties: fingerlings, giant bakers, yellow, red, and even blue ones. With so many new and old varieties to choose from, it’s easy to find a couple that will thrive in your particular garden. If you’re new to growing potatoes, don’t get too concerned with picking the ideal variety. You’ll probably be overjoyed with your first harvest, no matter what color or form, and can always branch out from there.
I usually try a couple of new potato varieties each year, but for my main crops I cut up and plant whatever I have left over from last year – usually a nice big Russett for baking and the yellow-fleshed Yukon Gold (cut into chunks, toss with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, and roast at 450 degrees for 1 hr. – Yum!).
My only real potato-growing challenge is the Colorado potato beetle. Pick off any beetles that you see and destroy the larvae and eggs. At my house, picking beetles has to be done three times a week during July and August. I find it really helps to keep my potato plants in the peak of health by spraying them every couple weeks with a seaweed/fish emulsion blend. The objective is to maintain lots of good foliage cover. The more foliage, the more good-sized tubers you’ll get.
When harvest time comes, dig your potatoes and “cure” them for two weeks in a cool (50 to 60 degree F), dark (or they’ll turn green) place with good air circulation. Then nestle them into bushel baskets or cardboard boxes. No need to rub off the dirt. Treat the tubers very gently so as not to bruise or cut them. Any damaged ones should be eaten, not stored. Cover the boxes or baskets with lots of newspaper or cardboard. Even a little light will cause the flesh to turn green, which should not be eaten. Ideally potatoes should be stored at 35 to 40 degrees F. My own basement is a little bit warmer than that and my potatoes keep well into April.
Last summer was unusually wet. This was bad weather for picnics but great weather for onions. Since I don’t usually water my garden, I hadn’t realized what a difference it makes when onions get plenty of moisture. I’ve also found that onions are happiest when they get lots of sun, and they sulk when they’re crowded by other plants or weeds.
I start my onions from seed rather than the little sets of mini-onions you get at the nursery. This is partly because I grow about 100 lbs of onions, and also because I’ve found that onions grown from seed store much longer – sometimes from September through June. Start by selecting a seed variety that’s been bred as a good storage onion. This will be a very firm, very pungent onion (the same chemicals that make onions pungent make them good keepers). I always grow both a yellow and a red variety.
Start your onion seeds very early – January or February – depending on where you live. I broadcast the seed in a flat and once the plants are up, will trim the tops off with a scissors every couple weeks (sort of like trimming a Chia pet!). Onions are heavy feeders, so amend your soil with compost and a granular organic fertilizer before you plant. Set the seedlings (which may be no more than 1/8″ diameter at the base) about 6″ apart in each direction. Keep them well watered and well weeded, and make sure they don’t get too shaded by neighboring plants.
At the end of the summer, the tops will flop over. Let the plants keep growing until frost threatens or the foliage begins to dry. Then pull your onions and lay them out on newspaper in a relatively cool location where they won’t get wet. The floor of the garage or a protected porch works well. Let them “cure” for 2 weeks. During this time the necks will dry and close up, and the papery skins will form. Once the necks have dried and there’s no more moisture in the stem or leaves, you can store your onions in mesh bags or bushel baskets. Keep them cool (35-45 degrees) and away from light.
My home-grown garlic is my most precious crop. I grow all I need for year-round use and the quality just can’t be beat. There are lots of different varieties of garlic available now – read the seed catalogs carefully and choose one that’s suited to your location. I grow a stiff-neck variety called German white.
Garlic doesn’t require much space. A 2 ft x 10 ft bed of it provides me with all I need, with enough extra heads to plant the next year’s crop. Most cold-climate gardeners plant their garlic in late fall for harvest the following August. Plant individual cloves (the bigger the clove you plant, the bigger the head you’ll harvest), setting them 4 to 5 inches apart in all directions and just deep enough to cover the top of the clove. Water thoroughly, and then cover the whole bed with straw mulch once you’ve had your first hard frost. Pull off the mulch in early spring.
Garlic has the same growing requirements as onions. Keep the plants weeded and well watered, and give them lots of sun. Harvesting is a little trickier. You need to pull the plants up when the second set of leaves begins to yellow. This is usually sometime in mid-August. If you wait too long, the cloves will separate and they won’t store as well.
Cure and store your garlic just like onions. If you save a dozen of the biggest heads (it’s hard to do, but worth it), you’ll have plenty of cloves to plant in the fall and will never need to buy garlic again.
Acorn, hubbard, buttercup, spaghetti, delicata and golden nugget. Winter squash are truly beautiful and lots of fun to grow. Six or eight butternut squash is plenty to get me through the winter. But if you’re a real squash lover, you’ll probably want twice that amount.
Squash plants take up a lot of space, but they’re not fussy about where they grow. I banish mine to a spot behind the barn where they can sprawl as much as they want. You can usually plan on harvesting one or two good-sized squash from each plant. The usual recommendation is to put two to three plants (or seeds) in a little group, and space these “hills” about three-feet apart.
Don’t plant your squash until the soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed. Young squash plants appreciate protection from insects and harsh weather. I cover mine with a piece of floating row cover. Fertilize a couple times early in the growing season and then forget the plants until the first light frost, when the leaves will die and reveal your harvest.
After harvesting, let your squash cure in the sun for 10 days or so and be sure to cover them well if you expect more frost. Store them where it’s cool, but they won’t mind temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees F. Eat acorn, spaghetti and delicata squash first. They won’t keep well past the holidays.