The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
January 30, 2013Over the last week we have seen nighttime temperatures dip into the teens on Mr. Fahrenheit’s scale. In anticipation of this much colder weather we have harvested the rows of kale, leaving only the upper leaves to stand the remaining months of winter. The plants will survive and regrow foliage for a March and April harvest. The parsley is now protected under bell glass, the endive sheltered under paper frames and the lettuce has been secured within the cold frame. On the coldest nights, as an added precaution, straw is laid upon the sashes and a canvas tarp laid over all to secure it into place. This simple device provides a layer of air that much improves the insulation for the frames and preserves the lettuce even on the coldest nights.
This is the finest lettuce of the year. The freezing temperatures sweeten the foliage and retard its progress so that it will not bolt, even after the heads are fully formed. The lettuce grown for the fall and spring crop will quickly run to flower if it is not harvested in a timely manner, but the winter lettuce may be left for weeks as perfect heads.Lettuce has long been a favorite subject amongst Virginia gardeners, even in the early years of settlement when gardens were a luxury that the common folk, so preoccupied with raising corn and cattle, could scarce afford. Indeed, our forefathers were often critical of our early attempts at horticulture. Robert Beverly, writing in 1705 declared, “A garden is no where sooner made than there . . . and yet they haven’t many gardens in that country fit to bear the name of garden.” A Swiss traveler by the name of Frances Michel gave a similar assessment in 1702, “The inhabitants pay little attention to garden plants except lettuce, although most everything grows here.” So at the very least it can be said we grow our lettuce and in the winter months, we grow it very well.
For an explanation of the various methods of securing your plants against the trials of winter you are invited to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press).