Not all climates and soil conditions are created equal. People on the farm had to learn what vegetables their soil types grew best and which were more suited to their specific climate. Folks dependent upon those vegetables year-round, or at least for several off months, would put more effort and garden space toward those that would last longer. For example, a potato will last a lot longer than a pepper. Both can be preserved in several ways: canned, frozen or dried. But not everybody has those options. Real sustainable vegetables last a long time with little effort and can easily be rejuvenated. Let’s look at some of those winter vegetables that are easy to maintain but are long sustaining.
A good healthy bed can last 25 years or longer, and it takes almost no maintenance. Asparagus prefers well-drained loamy soil, but it will grow in most soil conditions.
One way to start your asparagus bed is to buy the plants, which can be found in most garden and seed catalogs. Your best bet are the 3-year-old plants. You can also start from seeds; it takes longer—a few years—but it’s a little cheaper than buying plants. Once you have bought plants or sown your seeds, you dig a trench, fill the bottom with a fertilizer like manure, lay your roots out like a spider about 18 inches apart, then cover them with the same organic material and pack it tight with your hands. After the third season, you should be able to start harvesting spears.
Care should be taken to keep weeds to a minimum. I usually get my first spears here in southwest Missouri around April 1. Harvest for 60 days, then let them grow into their beautiful feathery fern-like hedge. In one year from my 50-foot row, I harvested a little over 200 pounds in that 60-day window. I find frozen asparagus tastes fresher than either canned or dried, so that is my method of preservation. This past spring, I started another 50-foot row of all Purple Passion 3-year-old roots. It comes up purple but cooks green. It is a hardy variety that yields larger, more tender spears that have become my favorite.
Turnips are awesome, but they can be an acquired taste. There was once a time when my wife would not eat a turnip on a bet, and now she loves them and often requests them from the garden. Turnip seeds are cheap and readily available. One tip is to buy the large bags of seeds intended for wildlife food plots or cattle forage, which are much cheaper than the little packets and, despite warnings on some of these larger bags, are still edible. I routinely harvest turnips from my food plot if my garden doesn’t produce what we want. The popular Purple Top variety is what I usually plant, but I also like to experiment with other varieties as well as rutabagas. The experience of planting, growing and eating is the same across varieties, except that some rutabagas are a bit milder in taste.
An older gentleman taught me to plant turnips, and I have had great luck with his method. He simply took a small handful of seeds and scattered them about, but I found that a little handheld, crank-style grass seeder allowed for more even dispersal. You simply broadcast the seeds over the ground; no cover is needed. Make sure to level your bed well as the seeds tend to concentrate in every depression, growing too thick. If you get them too concentrated, you can use a hard-toothed rake to thin them out a bit.
They come up quickly and require an reasonable amount of water to get them started. You can plant turnips in the spring and fall, as they are a root vegetable and can tolerate the cold. I prefer to only plant fall turnips, since those that have not experienced a frost tend to be quite bitter. This is why I suspect most folks think they don’t like turnips.
Winter Vegetables: Turnips After the Frost
After the first frost, they are nice and sweet. We like them boiled with salt, pepper and butter, and they are great in soups and stews. We actually prefer them in roasts instead of potatoes, and rutabagas are good mashed. Our grandson loves them raw for munching. They are best kept in the ground for storage. Again, depending on your climate, turnips might require more care to keep. In cold climates, turnips can be kept longer periods by insulating them.
I cover them with loose straw, hay or leaves, then add snow on top to provide additional insulation. If they freeze, they become pithy in the middle and soon rot. If not frozen, they will make it through until spring and go to seed. Unless you need the garden space, I would let the seeds mature and then either let them broadcast naturally and reseed themselves or lay a sheet down and collect the seed for that fall.
Sweet potatoes are easy to grow, requiring nothing more than a good watering now and then. They are also a healthier choice, especially for diabetics. They have less starch than regular potatoes and can be prepared in many healthy ways.
To start your sweet potato cultivation, you’ll need to select your potato of choice. Many years ago, we were given a type of sweet potato that a family friend had good luck with, and from that first gift we still are enjoying potatoes of that variety now. Sweet potatoes store well, and if you grow enough and are careful through the winter, you will have a few potatoes left over.
Growing Sweet Potatoes
Growing sweet potatoes is as simple as submerging half to three-quarters of the potato in a jar of water. After a while, there will be sprouts growing up off the potatoes. Once they are a couple inches long, we break them off at the potato and put them in water. In about a week, you will have little roots growing off the sprouts. These sprouts will last quite a while bundled in water, so when the ground is warm enough and the risk of frost is gone, you can plant them. They are generally hardy, but just in case, plant a few extra.
Most seed catalogs and local nurseries sell the plants in bundles of 25. First and last frosts pretty much determine your planting and harvest dates, so plant them as soon as you can after the last frost in the spring and harvest them before the first frost in autumn. If you harvest after the frost, the cold kills the above-ground foliage, and decay can set in so they don’t store as well.
When digging, use a potato fork and take care not to injure the tubers. Undoubtedly, some will get cut into and broken, so use these immediately and don’t store them with the others. We dig our potatoes in the morning so we can cure them in the sun for several hours before storing. I never wash my potatoes before I store them, as washing seems to rinse away a natural protective coating that helps them keep longer. We store our potatoes in a cool, dark outbuilding that does not freeze, and we routinely sort through them and discard any soft or decaying tubers.
Squash & Pumpkins
Squash and pumpkins require little maintenance, keep well and allow for the simple harvesting of seeds for the next season. Native Americans realized this and grew huge fields of these vegetables. Summer squash is great in the summer, but fall varieties such as butternut and acorn squash are favored, as they keep well. One of my favorites is spaghetti squash, which will last up to 60 days after harvest in a cool, dark place such as a cellar.
As with all my garden endeavors, I plant according to the Farmer’s Almanac moon-favorable dates. I also heed its first and last frost dates. Read the “days to maturity” on your seed packets, or simply Google it and plant accordingly. I plant in succession through the season, and I plan to harvest my squash as late as I can before the first frost, which is generally around October 15 here in the Ozarks. Counting on my winter squash and pumpkins to last around 60 days, I will enjoy squash until about December 15. During the summer, I harvest some seeds from my squash and let them sun dry. I then clean them off and store them in an envelope to plant the following season.
Beans might be the easiest vegetables to grow and harvest, and there are several varieties to choose from. I like Blue Lake and Roma beans. These are planted in wide rows or simply broadcast in raised beds as soon as the risk of frost is gone. I rotate the boxes between the Roma and Blue Lake varieties from year to year, planting in succession throughout the summer and planning on a fall crop. Again, using my almanac and the days to maturity, I schedule a harvest just before first frost.
To preserve them, canning or freezing works great to keep the beans fresh through the next year’s first harvest. I also like to leave a certain amount on the vine to harvest once dry and save to plant later. In the case of lima or butter beans, you can harvest and preserve fresh or let them dry and use in a pot with ham hocks during the cold winter months. Thoroughly dried, these beans will keep well in jars.
Beets are like turnips in how you grow and keep them. We plant beets in the spring for summer beets, which we like pickled, canned or served with ranch dressing or in salads. A fall patch is planted that we keep in the ground, covered up like turnips, and harvest as we need them. We like these fall beets in stews and boiled with butter as a side. The seeds are broadcast like turnip seeds and can be harvested in the summer after they go to seed or left to self-seed.
I’m not the best at growing potatoes, as my garden seems to stay a little too wet for them, so I typically plant them in boxes. My boxes are full of rotted horse dirt, which is fluffy, rich and drains well. You can buy seed potatoes, but if you plan well, you can save seed potatoes from year to year. Typically, potatoes are planted once a year, but they can be planted early for an early crop and then later for a fall harvest—the later the better to carry you into winter. Potatoes keep well in cool, dry places such as cellars.
Sweet corn is a fan favorite and was a staple for some Native American tribes. It was grown to be eaten fresh as well as dried and ground into cornmeal for baking. It was also cultivated as feed for livestock and chickens. Once dried, it can be saved for seed corn or for grinding later. It can also be rehydrated for use in recipes such as stews.
Depending on how energetic you are and or how self-reliant you want to be, wheat can also be grown. I plant it regularly in my wildlife food plots. It grows well and can be harvested once dry. You have to thrash it to remove the wheat kernels and then wash them. Once dried, it keeps well in jars for long periods of time.
Planting sustainable vegetables that could easily be carried over from year to year was a way of life for our ancestors. They depended on it. We live in a time when we are independent of that lifestyle, but having the know-how and practicing these techniques is not only rewarding but could be what gets us through a tough time.
This article is from the winter 2019 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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