The Overwintered Garden
New growth is the name of the game in March. Until now, winter gardeners were mostly harvesting the stored fortunes of the previous growing season. The Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage, parsnips, and rutabagas put their future in stored nutrition in the form of tightly curled leaves, and oversized stems and roots. But with the longer days, these plants have another plan: reproduce! Many of our best food crops are naturally biennials, growing into strong plants the first season, and then transforming the grown plant into a burst of flowers and seeds in the second year. The transition from stored nutrition to the push toward reproduction happens about now. Those overwintering cauliflower are making heads; the sprouting broccoli is sprouting up a storm, and all of the cabbage family plants are sending up flower shoots.
Each variety has its own internal time clock for when to turn on the new spring growth. It doesn’t much matter how big the plant is; when it’s time to flower, it will do what it can with what it has. This is the reason that timing can be so important when growing overwintering vegetables such as cauliflower. If the plants don’t have sufficient size when they stop growing as winter closes in, you will get tiny cauliflowers in the spring. In my shady yard it pays to start early. The Purple Cape cauliflower pictured above was seeded about a year ago, the one pictured below was seeded in May or June, the “normal” time to start them around here, but not if you plant them in the shade!
Winter gardeners get to enjoy the smorgasbord of this burst of renewed growth. For some overwintering crops, this is the whole point of the effort. Overwintering cauliflower and sprouting broccoli are selected for excellence in this regard. But the reset of the brassica deserve honorable mention for their spring shoots, even if that is not why they were put in the ground in the first place.
In my garden now, the Brussels sprouts are sending up new tall shoots. Some of the kale and some failed Napa cabbage are also producing bud shoots. You won’t find kale “raab” or Brussels “shoots” in the store, but the winter gardener knows that these are this season’s delicacies. I snap a few florets and check the flavor as I go about the garden chores. They all are a little different, all tasty and tender, and good as a garden snack or gathered and steamed for supper.
This transition to new growth means that the overwintered energy store will soon be consumed by the plant. Overwintered beets and parsnips will soon become tasteless and woody, so it’s time to pick in what is left. The burst of new growth that is so tasty doesn’t last very long. Before you know it, the tender shoots get leggy and tough, buds turn to flowers, and the winter plants will be pulled to make way to new seedlings. Already some of next year’s crop is coming up in six-packs in the windowsill.