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Winter Growing: Vermont’s “Invincible Summer”

Snow squalls swirl round the windows, while shrill winds shake the barn cupola from where I write here on Walden North Farm in Vermont. Much of New England this weekend is wrapped in blizzards of snow “whirling wild without” (to borrow Thoreau’s words). The endless landscapes of white that weather experts are calling “epic,” is for us Vermonters, —simply another winter’s day. 

Whenever asked about Vermont winters, particularly how we stand frigid temperatures that plunge to unthinkable depths, I smile and quote Camus:

“Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un invincible été.”

“Even in the midst of winter, I find there is in me an invincible summer.”

Perhaps our secret to embracing winter up here escapes the warm scrutiny of summer residents & visitors: we cold-hardy, multi-generational & transplanted Vermonters simply transform winters into invincible summers. Amid the several feet of white that seasonally blanket our Vermont fields, we see green. Vermont farmers, growers and homesteaders have found ways to maintain an invincible summer, —not only in their hearts, but in their plots as well. 

Even amidst the coldest days of winter, there are those of us who, again in the words of Thoreau, “make the earth say beans.” Well, if not beans exactly, certainly greens. 

During the winter months, Vermonters host, support, & frequent Farmers’ Markets, CSAs, farm stores, & local food restaurants (like the famed Claire’s in Hardwick) that offer a wide array of local root, as well as fermented vegetables, micro- and cold-hardy greens, sprouts and other winter vegetables.  

Some of us go even farther in our attempts to extend the growing season. Like our neighbors to the east in New Hampshire & Maine, we have adopted the classic French tradition of creating invincible summers—techniques for four-season growing, to borrow a phrase made famous by Eliot Coleman, whose book of that title has inspired countless Vermonters to grow year round—with simply astoundingly succulent, fresh, green results. 

Some professional growers, like Dave Allen at Hazendale Farms in Greensboro, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, and Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne grow cold-hardy vegetables such as spinach and kale, arugula, Asian greens, herbs, —even onions and scallions—throughout various months of the winter. Surrounded by snow, a variety of greenhouses, glass cold frames, plastic tunnels, hoops, domes, pods, south-facing windows, and other creative growing spaces contain vegetables sprouting, shooting, blossoming, & growing more or less contentedly. (After all, how content can a salad green be in sub-zero temps?)

In our solar and (sparsely) wood-heated greenhouse here at Walden North Farm, (where we build & sell post & beam greenhouses), we grow an array of vegetables all winter, including greens of various types: mesclun, salad, beet, Asian, & mustard, as well as cold-hardy herbs, peas, scallions, kale, cabbage, spinach, broccoli raab, carrots, and leeks. Even potato plants and tomato seedlings have sprouted in my greenhouse this winter—despite the particularly cold days and even colder nights. 

Some of us rely on a host of techniques inspired by not only fellow New England neighbor-authors Anna Edey, the Poissons & Eliot Coleman, but by our own attempts at keeping warm—creative layering. (I write this now shivering in my barn cupola, as the temperature dips below zero, —where I sit in my own creative insulation of double wool socks, various Ibex inventions to divert the cold from invading the soul, & topped with my grandmother’s Irish sweater.) When temps plunge down—like tonight—to -20F or lower, I add an additional layer of protection for my more tender vegetables, such as my potatoes and tomato seedlings—a Vermont version of the classic French cloche—Mason jars!  (What Vermonter doesn’t have more than plenty of those in stock?) 

For me, one of the most inspirational experiences in my growing life occurs at dawn on early January and February mornings when the outside thermometer reads -20F. Dressed in woolens, I venture into a frosty greenhouse whose temperature reads +20 something, only to find, —protected beneath layers of plastic—, beds of fragrant greens, trellises of pea vines and spicy scallions glistening in the dawning sun. There’s nothing quite like the aroma of Fresh on a frigid winter’s morning to inspire one to believe that anything—and everything—is possible. Like Thoreau, we Vermonters evince great “faith in a seed”—particularly those growing in the midst of winter. 

For true, albeit, frosty inspiration, come visit our farms, markets, & homesteads in Vermont this winter!

(Just how winter growing fits in with Thoreau’s admonition to “live in each season and eat the fruits of each,” we’ll save for another posting.)

Written by Sile Post,

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