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Cracker Barrel: Four-Season Harvest

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Every so often a new idea pokes its way up into the general consciousness, like a sprout of greenery pushing its way through a crack in the sidewalk.

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It’s safe to predict that most new ideas immediately meet with resistance. For several centuries most Europeans scoffed at the prospect of taking a bath, believing immersion in water would undermine the health of the bather. In our time, perfectly good foods like butter and eggs were regarded for decades as close to toxic, and so-called experts warned us not to eat them.

In parallel fashion, the idea of growing and harvesting salad greens and other vegetables all year long in northern climes without supplying them with heat appears, on first exposure, outrageous. How in the world can you expect defenseless plants to survive a winter like this one in unheated cold frames or greenhouses? Common sense tells us it’s just plain impossible.

Or is it?

According to Eliot Coleman and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, the answer is visible at their homestead on the coast of Maine where, without benefit of a heated greenhouse, they harvest vegetables every month of the year.

Coleman, one of America’s leading practitioners of organic gardening and farming, was first inspired by the experiments of Scott and Helen Nearing, who pioneered the quest for year-round food crops and wrote of their results in a 1954 book titled “Living the Good Life,” and later sold Coleman some of their land.

Building on the Nearings’ insights, and adding his own unique ability to “think like a plant or a root,” Coleman first published his “Four-Season Harvest” in 1992. Following several more years of experimentation and an information-gathering trip to the south of France, where cold-weather gardening has been done for centuries, he issued a revised and expanded edition of the book in 1999.

In the book (complete with several pages of color photos) he shows how North American gardeners, by taking advantage of abundant winter sunshine, can successfully use that sun to raise a wide variety of traditional winter vegetables in backyard cold frames and plastic-covered tunnel greenhouses without supplementary heat.

By following his resolute conviction that nature is at root benevolent, and that it will yield its bounty to anyone patient enough to learn to work with it instead of against it, Coleman has achieved astonishing results. Committed to the principles of organic gardening, he views “pests” as helpful signals or indicators, not enemies; and believes that working against the natural system by killing pests or doping up sick soil with commercial fertilizers only worsens problems instead of solving them.

Through decades of investigation and experimentation, Coleman has perfected the growing of more than two dozen cold-tolerant species in his unheated enclosures, and he and his wife routinely sweep snow off the cold frames or tunnels and harvest the succulent fresh produce within, right through the coldest months of winter.

“More and more people are realizing how their own actions can positively affect their health,” he writes. “Logically, a backyard full of fresh vegetables is a good place to start.”

Even more so if you can harvest them all year long.

As might be expected, many readers, confronted with Coleman’s claims, will reject them as impractical or downright impossible. But it might just be that this is an idea whose time has finally arrived, and a few years down the road we’ll find it common to be enjoying locally grown veggies year-around.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at www.CraigNagelBooks.com.)

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