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Book Review: The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman | Organic Gardening 365
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Book Review: The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman

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winter greenhouse gardening,

This book is full of practical ideas to help you farm all year long

Usually in mid to late September, I start closing down my garden.  I deadhead all the perennial flowers so they don’t go to seed.  And yank out tomato plants that clearly have nothing more to give, etc. I tidy up the beds so things will be ready to go in the spring when it’s time to jump back into the garden full force. Living in Connecticut, which can have prolonged periods of well-below freezing weather, I have basically resigned myself to no outside gardening activity in the winter.

Silly me!

Who knew you could garden all winter long – even in Maine

I have just finished a fascinating book by Eliot Coleman called, The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses (© 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing – the leading publisher of sustainable living books since 1985.).

Eliot Coleman lives and farms in Maine. During the regular growing season, he farms in more traditional ways. But he throws that tradition to the wind during later fall and winter by growing cold-hardy root and salad crops in unheated greenhouses.

Coleman began experimenting in the 1970s and has tried to keep things as low-tech and economical as possible. But that does not mean low-ingenuity or low-productivity.  In his efforts to extend the growing season further, he started with cold frames and has evolved into using 30′ x 96′ greenhouses.

Over the years he honed and developed his systems and in 1995 started commercial production.

Winter greenhouse gardening

The Winter Harvest Handbook describes the crops, tools, planting schedules and techniques he uses to run an organic commercial farm operating 12 months a year, which necessarily includes greenhouse gardening in winter. Hence the name, Four Season Farm. But more importantly, and throughout the book, Coleman offers the magic of his mindset.  He shares his ideas and inspiration freely to those who would follow in his footsteps and help “lead the way in the coming small-farm revival.”  He is clearly a major player in this revival and expects it to grow and prosper.  And he hopes you will be part of it.

Winter greenhouse crops

Winter greenhouse crops

This book is not just for farmers…

In essence, the book is a hands-on guide to year-round, organic farming. However, many of the ideas he shares can be adapted to the home garden, so don’t assume the book is just for farmers. Its 20 chapters cover such basic topics as getting started, scheduling, necessary tools, unheated greenhouse construction and operation, winter and summer crops, soil preparation, and weed and pest control.

And Coleman doesn’t just talk about the farming aspect of his operation.  He also delves into the marketing issues of getting his prolific amounts of produce sold.

A special chapter is devoted to what Coleman calls “deep-organics,” which I’ll talk about more in a minute.  He makes a strong case for the crucial role this type of organic farming plays in the success of his farm.

Gardening tips

Throughout the book there are great gardening tips. For example, you can plant more carrots in August for fall harvest if you use hoops over your rows.  This allows you to harvest for an additional two weeks into the cold season.  This is equally true for the commercial grower and the home gardener. And if you’re not farming commercially or year-round, you may just be inspired to add one or more greenhouses to your efforts.

Here’s another tip if you start your own tomatoes from seeds. Coleman re-pots his tomato seedlings twice before they are set out in the soil.  This promotes uninterrupted root growth and therefore healthier, more productive tomato plants. (See page 96 for the specifics.)  One more tomato tip: as the seedlings grow, keep them spaced from each other so the leaves do not touch.  When the leaves overlap, the plants don’t get enough direct light and will grow taller and more spindly.  This does not a healthy tomato transplant make. Healthy plants = more tomatoes.  Do the math.

One of many mobile greenhouses

One of many mobile greenhouses

Mobile greenhouses?

And you’re going to love what he’s done with his greenhouses. Coleman has developed a system of movable greenhouses that rotate to various locations to help increase production in his multi-crop approach to farming. There’s no way to really explain this here. You’ve just got to read the book. It goes into quite a bit of detail how it all works and allows him (and you) to produce much more in the same amount of space.  That means more sales and more happy customers who will benefit from real food all year long.  Speaking of happy customers, the kids in his town beg their parents to get his “candy carrots.”  They are so sweet they kids think they are better than candy.

Appendix anyone?

The book also has wonderful appendices. There are maps for hardiness and heat zones, depth of frost penetration, and average number of days under 32˚F and above 90˚F.  There are wonderful resource lists for tools, supplies, seeds, recommendations for winter and summer varieties, greenhouse and field crops, as well as sowing dates for fall and winter harvests. And there is an extensive reading list if you want some historical and current source material.

What is deep-organics?

Now let’s get back to Coleman’s approach to organic farming.  He calls it deep organic farming because he digs deep down into what organic farming is all about.  It’s more than just not using toxic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Deep-organics is looking for better ways to farm, better ways to husband the soil and to mimic Mother Nature’s proven systems.

Coleman explains that the goal of deep-organic farming is “to grow the most nutritious food possible and to respect the primacy of a healthy planet.”

Shallow-organic farms, as he calls them, even though rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for quick-fix solutions.  Instead of mimicking Mother Nature, they copy the chemical agriculture model. They use bagged and bottled organic fertilizer and treat symptoms instead of causes.  They put themselves in the hand of the industrial agriculture supply network. They are simply following the accepted minimum requirements to be labeled “organic” but using the industrial model and life-view.

Coleman points out that industrial organic farming, or shallow-organics, is still trying to control the environment and carry through its predetermined agenda.  The deep-organic approach seeks to submit to Mother Nature instead of dominate her, thereby discovering her systems and secrets (open secrets to those who are observant of them). He explains:

“Humans tend to think in terms of more milk, rather than exceptional milk; cheaper eggs not better eggs.  Since modern humans mistakenly consider nature imperfect, they focus on improving nature rather than seeking to improve our understanding of agriculture and human nutrition within a perfect nature.

“Humans want to change the rules [of nature] rather than try to operate more intelligently within them.

“These companies think they have the power to remake the parts of nature they don’t understand.  However, if they understood them, they would realize they don’t need remaking.  It is just our human relationship with the natural world that needs remaking.”

Here’s an example:  Coleman says that “the underlying cause of pest problems (insects and disease) is plant stress.” If you just treat the symptoms and don’t solve the stress issues, you will never really solve the problem.

But alas, the industrial agricultural model, whether chemical or organic, just doesn’t get it.  Coleman says it’s partly because our current culture has conditioned us to the degree that a lot of folks just can’t conceive of what he’s talking about. He quotes historian, Howard Zinn:

“The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Do you already have the book?

If you are a commercial grower, I hope you already have this book.  If so, it’s probably dog-eared and soiled with the honest dirt from your hard working hands.  If you don’t have a copy, then make haste to thy nearest bookstore or internet connection and procure it immediately. If you are a home gardener, I highly recommend this book.  You can probably find a copy at your local library, but you may just want to have your own copy.  There are lots of ideas you can adapt to your home garden.

But watch out, if you spend too much time with this book, you are likely to confess to your family at the dinner table one evening that you want to start a year-round deep-organic farm with mobile greenhouses.  However, if you play your cards right and leave the book in strategic locations around the house so family members can look at it, you may just get them hooked on the idea too. Good luck!

Be part of the small farm revival.

Here’s to your year-round gardening/farming endeavors,

James Early
Organic Gardening 365
Helping you get the most out of your garden all year long.

P.S. If you haven’t signed up for my blog yet and would like to, just click here.

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  • What a pleasure to read up on something that is healthful, helpful, and content-hearty! Wonderful layout, color, and images for a brand new site. Lots of continued luck, James!

    • James Early

      Thanks Paula.