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Winter Harvest Handbook

Winter harvest handbookIn 1968, Eliot Coleman (quite literally) bought Helen and Scott Nearings' back 40 acres and started farming.  His farm is on the coast of Maine --- zone 5 --- where many people think growing conditions are tough for even producing a summer crop.  But Coleman didn't want to think so small.  Instead, he dreamed of developing a low tech and economical way to harvest fresh vegetables year round.  The Winter Harvest Handbook is a beautifully illustrated and clearly written guide that sums up forty years of gardening experience and tells precisely how to harvest salad greens and a few other crops all winter long.

Coleman started his journey by looking into the past.  150 years ago, Parisian farmers (maraichers) grew all of the city's vegetables and even exported some to England using just 6% of the city's land area as growing space.  Their highly intensive gardens depended on copious amounts of horse manure from the city stables --- sometimes as much as 400 tons per acre.  (For the sake of comparison, Lee Reich's mulch campaign, which I thought was beyond my ability to achieve, used only about 90 tons of organic matter per acre, Nineteenth century French farm with a field of clochesassuming a conversion rate of about 1350 pounds per cubic yard.)  This French manure was used fresh as the heat source in hotbeds for winter growing, with panes of glass over the top and then a mat of straw for additional night-time insulation as needed.  They also used thousands of glass cloches (bottomless jars) to protect individual plants.

The French intensive gardening system was clearly successful, but it was also hugely labor-intensive.  The hotbeds and cloches could overheat on sunny days, so farmers would spend hours walking down the rows and manually propping them open in the morning, then closing each one back up as the sun fell at night.  Modern winter-growers have replaced all of this labor with high tech thermostats and self-opening vents and fans, but Coleman wanted to find a system somewhere in the middle.  This week's lunchtime series details his method that combines the simplicity of the French system with enough modern conveniences to let you grow winter greens without quite so much back-breaking labor.

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This post is part of our Winter Harvest Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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