Seeing my neighbors walking down the sidewalk in t-shirts today, it’s easy to forget that it’s mid-late December. Especially when compared to the last two winters, which were some of the coldest on record.
But it’s also easy to forget that the last two winters were abnormal, at least in recent memory. In my lifetime in Michigan and Northern Illinois, we’ve had a white Christmas less than 50% of the time.
And so long as there isn’t snow on the ground, we can go outdoors and be greeted by some of our winter plant friends. Many seem to think you need a green house or hoop house to enjoy fresh greens in the winter, but it ain’t so. In fact, even after having a good snow cover a couple of times, there are a whole cadre of over-wintering ephemerals and early spring ephemerals that only appear in the cold months, and they’re some of the best!
So, here are some greens we can grow and forage to kick off the scurvy through the holidays.
Starting with some of the traditional vegetables, kale still looks great this time of year and in my opinion is at its sweetest after a snow.
This is a perennial leek, Babington’s leek, but other winter leeks should look just as good right now.
Arugula is also looking good still, though starting to get bitter. But harvesting young plants and small leaves still gives amazing gourmet salads.
A wide variety of perennial herbs help spice up savory winter dishes. Sage is great with winter squash recipes. We’re still making “Delicatta fries” with oil (or butter) and browned ssage sauces, and we’ll soon move on to Butternut and Seminole pumpkin, sauteed with sage and turned into a pasta sauce.
A wide variety of thymes are also still helping out in egg dishes and soups.
Our perennialized patches of garlic are producing greens this time of year and can be dug when the soil’s dry for fresh garlic bulbs. An absolute farmhouse delicacy.
Blood-veined sorrel and blue-stemmed Welsh onion.
A crunchy cultivated purslane, Stella Minutina.
Beautiful rosettes of endive, which were cut a month before to encourage fresh new greens over winter.
Others endives were potted up and brought inside for a true gourmet vegetable, Belgian endive loaf, that sells for as much as $5/head at the store – if you can even find them! Blanched in a dark closet or basement, they produce crunchy green heads than can be grilled, roasted, or used in salad or pasta dishes. We like to use the crunchy spoon-shaped leaves as “dippers” for hummus or tapas dishes instead of crackers or bread.
Deer stay away from the Evening Dame’s Rocket, but I think it tastes better now than the Turkish rocket they’ve been feasting on.
Turkish rocket is a bit hairy this time of year. Not my fave to be honest.
Parsley is great in winter dishes. Next year I plan on growing way, way more. Bill Mollison says a sort of self-sowing permanant parsley patch can be set up so that you never have to do without. We’ll plan on testing that out next year.
Salad burnet is at its best right now, too. A nice cucumber flavor and a texture like pea tips.
Egyptian walking onions are still producing green onions, and will continue to, even under the snow.
Chickweed is going strong and reminds me of sprouts when added to a sandwich.
Peppercress or shotcress is a great green that’s a relative of watercress and gardencress. This time of year, it has a texture and flavor (and reportedly, nutrition) very similar to those two gourmet vegetables.
Speaking of, here’s watercress growing in bowls of water on our window sill. A very economical way of producing winter greens that are very nutritious.
Looks very similar to the wild cress. At this size, virtually indistinguishable.
A polyculture of chickweed, onion grass, cress and sticky willy carpet the forest garden this time of year.
Young seedlings of miner’s lettuce are just emerging and will be ready by spring.
A few larger specimens are further along, competing here with dead nettle, chickweed, and motherwort (and a leaf of poison hemlock! One must be very careful when foraging.)
Sorrel leaves are tangy and tender this time of year. Unfortunately, the deer think so, too.
The deer are also a little too fond of our campanula persicifolia, which is at its best this time of year. This one has been over-harvested by the deer.
Dead nettle Vs stinging nettle. Can you tell them apart? The nettle stings and is just finishing it’s growth cycle for the year. The Dead Nettle is a mint with no sting, and it’s just starting its yearly growth. Both are edible as a cooked green.
Winter forest garden, looking pretty dormant to the untrained eye, but to the initiated, it’s still a full-service healthfood store!
Garlic and wild cress omlette with winter greens salad and olives.
Michael Hoag: Manager/teacher/gardener/author/designer/consultant.
Michael Hoag has spent over 20 years as a full-time worker in the army of Permaculture change-makers. He is founder of the Transformative Adventures Cooperative, managing director of Lillie House Permaculture, and a full-time Permaculture designer and consultant who has participated in over 300 projects. He has worked on farms of all sizes, worked with food justice organizations, colleges and universities, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and PIRGIM. As a teacher trainer, he has worked as a pedagog in crafting university curricula, adult education curricula, and programs for environmental and ecological awareness, and Permaculture. He has worked at a farm credit bureau, a commodities exchange, and managed farmers markets. He has created businesses including market gardens, vermicomposting operations, and helped start and lead multiple community and non-profit organizations.
Michael has over 20 years experience teaching classes and facilitating group projects, including community garden and forest garden projects. He’s an enthusiastic researcher of traditional temperate forest garden systems and productive ecologies of the Great Lakes region. The culture, history and aesthetics of gardens and garden architecture are his great passions, and he believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people and cultures. He has taught and lectured for McHenry County College, Arora University, the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Chicago Adult Learning Resource Center, The Kalamazoo Nature Center, and gives presentations to community groups, organizations and churches. He helps organize Van-Kal Permaculture, the SoMi Permimixer, Michigan Safe Energy Future, CORE and the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition’s Food Group.
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