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Growing winter vegetables ... in Schuyler

VALOIS—Fresh-from-the-garden vegetables are possible in the winter, and a growing number of home gardeners and farmers harvest year-round – with a lot of advance planning.
Husband and wife team Matthew Glenn and Liz Martin, co-owners of Muddy Fingers Farm on Dugue Road in Valois, suit up for January gardening in Carhartts, boots, layers of scarves, hats and gloves.  A thick layer of snow blankets their fields, the ground is frozen, the air cold, made colder by a little wind. But a short walk from their house, inside their “caterpillar” and hoop houses, a little sun will bring the temperature to above-freezing, allowing them to harvest lettuce, spinach, arugula and other greens.
Glenn and Martin take their produce to the indoor Winter Farmer’s Market, held Saturdays through the end of February from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Women’s Community Building at the intersection of Seneca and Cayuga Streets in Ithaca.  They expect to have produce through January and part of February.
A few crops, like kale, can be over-wintered in the field, they explain.  “In the summer, you can bring kale to market and you pretty much have to pay people to take it off your table,” Glenn jokes.  
“But people really appreciate local food in the winter,” Martin adds.  “Bring it in January and you’re like a hero!”
Even when picked frozen, the kale quickly thaws to become a valued and flavorful vegetable. Brussels sprouts can also be stored in the garden – but enthusiastic customers have exhausted their crop.
“There are several technologies for keeping plants going through the winter,” Martin says.  She and Glenn are currently experimenting with onions and leeks, protecting a crop under a double-plastic tunnel supported by semi-circles of bent electrical conduit pushed into the ground.  These plants will be dormant through the cold weather, but in the spring, they’ll return to life to become the earliest part of the harvest.  For the moment, though, these plants are inaccessible, banked in with plastic anchored under layers of snow.
Spinach planted in August and September thrives in a simple, unheated, plastic-covered “caterpillar,” a portable protective covering placed over several rows of planted greens in the fall.  Tucked under an additional layer of fabric row covers, lightly-frozen spinach plants wait for the sun to come out – when the temperature inside rises pleasantly above freezing and the spinach may be harvested.  Martin picks a leaf which thaws immediately in the warmth of her fingers.  The flavor is nuttier and greener than commercially-packaged spinach.
“It’s pretty easy,” Glenn says.  Provided the seeds were planted at the right time – and they say they’ve learned by experience that the window of opportunity for these fall plantings is only open briefly – “There’s no weeding, no insects, no watering, because there’s still some moisture in the soil.  Things are very reliable, as long as you can get your crop to grow successfully at the end of summer.  So there’s not much work and a little income.”
They also use a more permanent structure on the farm, whose roof and walls are double-layered greenhouse plastic, the layers slightly inflated by a small fan moving air between its layers.  Here, small lettuces and a few herbs, under fabric row covers, crouch low to the ground.  The plants are nearly frozen in the unheated building, though the ground is not.  “Any sun at all and it will thaw,” Martin notes.  Another greenhouse, unused at this season, will be heated in a few months to help seedlings get started.
The hoop-house system is as much a cold-storage process as a garden.   Everything they’re harvesting now was planted before fall’s cool weather set in – so what they can harvest now is limited by what went into the ground back then.  “It’s surprising how long things take to grow!” Martin says of their hoop-house crops.  But this simple structure – something home gardeners could easily try - allows them and their customers to enjoy fresh-picked vegetables year-round, at a time when most gardeners are longingly poring over seed catalogs.  
“Where in summer, you can read a seed package and when it says something will grow to maturity in 60 days, it pretty much will, in the hoop house, something you plant in September might not be edible until March.  It’s interesting,” as Matthew says, “how crucial the timing is.”  
The Muddy Fingers seed order, by the way, has already gone in.  “We have the whole farm for the next year planted on paper,” Martin says.  
“We have to – by August and September we’re really busy and also a little tired,” Glenn says.  “So it’s important to have planned ahead.”
Next year’s garden will include a cabbage that can be picked frozen, maybe some herbs, and another hoop house to extend the cucumber and tomato season.  Martin and Glenn will be celebrating their sixth year farming on this land.  As the crops in the hoop houses are exhausted, by mid-February when there’s 10 hours or more of light they will start sowing new crops, with a fresh year’s produce available by the beginning of April.
Before they’re gone, customers can reach them at 546-4535.


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