Niki Jabbour uses PVC tubing to create a hoop house for her plants so that she is able to harvest from the garden during the winter.
By Doug Oster Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As tomato plants flop over the tops of their cages and cucumber vines start looking tired, it's easy to become complacent and let the season simply fade away.
Not if you're Canadian author and radio host Niki Jabbour. She's just beginning to plant and plans to harvest vegetables well into winter, and in many cases, all the way until next spring.
The 39-year-old author of "The Year Round Vegetable Gardener" (Storey Publishing, $19.95) has gardened most of her life. It was when she had her own home and garden in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that she discovered plants that not only survive the cold but also thrive.
While planting garlic one October, she noticed the arugula patch was "looking fine in the sunshine," she said. That night the garden was blanketed with an inch of snow, but unfazed, the bright green leaves of arugula stood above it. After a thaw, Mrs. Jabbour covered the bed with a floating row cover and harvested through Christmas.
A floating row cover is a spun-bound translucent fabric that acts as an insulator for plants. It's one of many tools she uses to garden all year.
"I love fall because there are so many things you can grow," she said.
She chooses plants that aren't affected by frost like spinach, lettuce, arugula and uncommon favorites like pak choi, clatonia and mache. "They do fantastic in the fall and with a little bit of protection into the winter."
The easiest way for beginners to start extending the season is to heavily mulch root crops like carrots, beets, parsnips and others when the weather gets cold. She usually spreads straw or shredded leaves a foot deep, then covers the mulch with a row cover right before the ground freezes in November. The ground won't freeze under the thick mulch.
"All winter long I just lift the cover and harvest the roots directly from the garden, so you don't have to buy or build anything," she says.
She also builds mini hoop tunnels over her beds of cool-weather crops.
"I'm extremely unhandy," she says with a laugh. "If I can do it, anyone can do it."
To construct the hoops, she uses half-inch thick, 8-foot-long PVC pipe as supports. After pounding six pieces of 12-inch-long rebar into the ground around the bed, Mrs. Jabbour then slips the ends of the pipes over the rebar and bends them to make the tunnels. The hoops are covered with clear plastic.
For the winter garden, she also attaches a center support made of an 1- by 2-inch piece of wood, which is screwed to the top of the tunnel. The center support keeps the tunnel erect during heavy snow. From years of trial and error, she figured out a great way to attach the plastic covering to the PVC. She buys some three-quarter-inch PVC, cuts it into 1-inch sections and removes a little notch. They snap right on and the plastic stays put.
The climate in Halifax, zone 5b, is somewhat similar to Western Pennsylvania, although this region is a little warmer at zone 6. Mrs. Jabbour's garden slopes gently to the south, and even with lots of snow and a long cold winter, she harvests 365 days a year. The season is conducive to growing for many reasons.
"Wintertime excludes one my greatest nemesis, which is deer," she says. They can't access her crops because they're either covered in mulch, mini hoop tunnels or in cold frames, which bar insects, too.
"I don't have fight the deer in winter or the slugs, and it's heavenly."
A cold frame is basically a small greenhouse out in the garden. Usually it has a hinged door angled at 35 degrees facing south. Mrs. Jabbour recommends first-timers make one out of straw bales. Surround an existing bed with the bales and just cover the top with an old window, shower door or even a sheet of plastic. Cool-weather crops will be protected and last much of the winter.
This time of the year she's sowing seeds of Swiss chard, endive, beets, mizuna, mustards, kale, scallions and other crops like tatsoi. Her favorite winter lettuces are 'Winter Density' and 'Red Salad Bowl.'
She discovered Tatsoi eight years ago. It's a cole crop from the same family as broccoli and cabbage. "It has these lovely rounded spinach-like thick leaves. It's probably one of the very hardiest, most cold-tolerant vegetables for winter harvesting, with excellent flavor, really delicious."
It makes winter wonderful, she says, offering a wide variety of plants for fresh salads all season long.
Mrs. Jabbour has two children, an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old daughter. Both help with her winter garden. "When the seed catalogs come, they fight me for them."
Everyone in the family has his or her own color-coded marker. "There's nothing more rewarding than having your kids come home from school with friends and they run up to the coldframe and pick carrots," she says.
Mrs. Jabbour has advice for any vegetable gardener who wants to call it quits this time of the year.
"I find it rejuvenating to be able to go out this time of the year and start seeding again. It's wonderful, it's almost like spring."