See how one seasoned gardener maintains a year-round supply of fresh fruit.
Niki Jabbour is a Halifax-based author, writer, radio personality, and gardening expert who has worked in a variety of fields. She is well-known for her expertise in cold-weather gardening, and she plants dozens of vegetable species in her 2,000-square-foot garden, which she can harvest all year long.
In her first book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, she discusses tips and tricks for growing healthy edibles all year long, and in her second book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden, she introduces you to an infinite number of ways to grow your own food. She has written two books. It is possible to listen to her radio show, The Weekend Gardener, which airs throughout Eastern Canada on News 95.7 FM, and read her blog, Savvy Gardening, where she provides further gardening information as well as DIY projects and cold-weather gardening guidance.
Tell us a little bit about your professional background.
I’m a garden writer and radio broadcaster from in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is located on Canada’s east coast, where the growing season is short and the winters are typically harsh and snowy. I’ve been writing about gardening for almost a decade. Despite this, I am still able to harvest a diverse selection of products from my food garden throughout the year. When it comes to protecting cold season crops like kale, leeks, carrots, beets, onions, and hundreds of different varieties of salad greens from the elements in the winter, I use basic structures like cold frames and micro hoop tunnels, as well as straw mulch, to keep them safe.
Our garden had been in the same spot for 12 years when we decided to do a big restoration in the spring of 2016. We destroyed my old garden, extended and leveled the space, and then constructed 20 raised beds that were organized in a symmetrical pattern to accommodate my growing needs. The garden was also enclosed by an electronic deer fence, as well as vertical constructions like tunnels and trellises, which allowed us to expand the amount of growing area.
In a short growing season, how does it feel to be a gardener in a short growing season?
While growing up, our vegetable garden was a May-to-September endeavor that yielded most of its products throughout the months of August and early September. Once I got my own garden and began experimenting, I discovered that it was feasible to prolong the growing season much beyond the early October limit and I never looked back after that. I no longer consider the first and last frost dates to represent the beginning and conclusion of the growing season. Now, it’s all about producing the correct crops in the proper season and combining them with the appropriate season extenders to get the best results.
What are some of the things that you do to assist lengthen the growing season in your garden?
My first season extender was a cloth row cover, which allowed me to extend the harvest of our local arugula by many weeks by using it. Soon after, I began constructing little hoop tunnels over my raised beds in preparation for harvesting in the fall and winter. Kale, endive, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, spinach, and parsley are some of my favorite cold-season crops, as are broccoli sprouts and cabbage. The food we cultivate in our autumn and winter garden beds includes a broad range of vegetables, many of which, such as kale and carrots, get sweeter when the temperature decreases. Cold frames, which are the backbone of our winter garden, are 3′ x 6′ in size, as is mine. For further insulation, they are coated with Lexan, which has a double layer of polycarbonate for enhanced strength and durability. These structures catch solar energy and help to create a microclimate around our veggie plants and other plants. When the garden is covered behind a covering of snow in the middle of winter, it’s a sight to behold to raise the cover of a cold frame and harvest a large bowl of winter greens and root crops.
I also make use of season extenders, such as tiny hoop tunnels, to allow me to plant heat-loving, long-season crops such as ground cherries, eggplants, and peppers earlier in the growing season. Although our climate has begun to shift in recent years, our summers have undoubtedly become longer and warmer as a result of the change in seasons.
In addition to the cold weather, what is the most difficult aspect of gardening in the winter?
Early on, I discovered that acquiring seeds for my winter garden was the most difficult task. Many companies did not provide the veggies or kinds I wanted to cultivate, such as mache, mizuna, claytonia, tatsoi, and so on. I ended up growing them myself. With the rise in popularity of food gardening and year-round vegetable growing, it has become much simpler to find these seeds, and I can even purchase them from seed firms in my neighborhood.
Aside from that, I’ve discovered that the winter garden requires very little upkeep. It is critical to select the most appropriate crops for growing. Taking Swiss chard as an example, it is an autumn garden favorite, but it is susceptible to frost damage in our garden by December. So I plant it as a late fall crop and again in early spring for an April-May harvest, but I don’t include it in our winter harvest beds since it takes up too much room there. As a result, I reserve that valuable garden area for cold-hardy veggies and herbs that we can harvest throughout the winter.
Does it appear that cool- and cold-weather plants are more sensitive to certain pests and diseases?
For me, the colder months are a time of peace and quiet in the garden. It’s the only time of year when I don’t have to fight deer since they can’t get to the crops because they are protected by mulch, cold frames, or tiny hoop tunnels, and there are no slugs or other pests to contend with. The presence of insects such as aphids isn’t a problem when the temperature is below freezing. The same may be said about illnesses. In the spring and autumn, I make it a point to vent my structures on a regular basis, either by propping open the tops of the cold frames or clipping up the ends of the tiny hoop tunnels to allow for proper air circulation. However, throughout the winter, the bacteria or fungus that cause the majority of common garden illnesses are either dormant or have been destroyed by the freezing temperatures. Also, I don’t have to water or weed, and the only responsibilities I have are harvesting the crops and brushing the snow off the structures when snowfall has passed.
What are some pointers you might give to someone who is interested in trying their hand at winter gardening?
Mulch is the quickest and most effective method to begin extending your season. Mulch any root or stem crops (such as leeks, carrots, beets, celeriac, and other root vegetables) that are still growing in your garden beds with a 12- to 18-inch layer of shredded leaves or straw in late October, before the ground freezes. To keep the insulation in place, cover the mulch with an old row cover or a bed sheet that has been washed. We collect from our mulched beds during the whole winter season.
It is also quite simple to construct a tiny hoop tunnel out of PVC tubing with a 1/2-inch diameter. These are spanned over a plant bed and anchored to the ground using rebar pegs that are one foot in length. The construction of a little tunnel takes me about 10 minutes and is an excellent method of overwintering taller crops such as kale, collards, leeks, and other salad greens. Cover the hoops with transparent plastic and weigh them down with pebbles or logs to keep it from blowing away. If you live in an area where there is a lot of snow, run a wooden plank (such as a 1×2 piece of timber) through the middle of the building before you put on the cover to aid with snow removal and snow shed. During the winter, you may harvest your abundant supply of greens by lifting the ends of the tunnel.
Was there anything in particular that we should look forward to in your upcoming book?
It’s called Veggie Garden Remix because it promotes variety in the garden and highlights some of my favorite odd, worldwide, or rare delicacies, such as burr gherkins and cucamelons. It also includes chickpeas, Yukina savoy, celtuce, and around 235 more amazing crops. Her inspiration came from her Lebanese immigrant mother, who encouraged me to hone my gardening abilities and experiment with new-to-me Middle Eastern vegetables such as edible gourds, purslane, and zaatar to see what worked. Oh, the delicious meals that we are now able to enjoy! On this global food voyage, I hope that everyone who enjoys experimenting in their gardens would join me on the journey.
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