If you’re interested in vegetable gardening and not sure where to start, Barbara Damrosch has some advice for you: “Just grow something.”
Damrosch, author of The Garden Primer, and a market gardener in Maine, is an expert on food crops of all kinds. Her favorites are whatever is in season: “Think seasonally,” she says, “and enjoy the wonderful experience of what likes to grow in whatever weather you’re in.” Damrosch eats tomatoes in summer and parsnips in winter. She makes some applesauce in the fall, but she actually doesn’t can or freeze much from her garden. “I don’t want to put myself through that marathon,” she says.
Instead, she and her husband, Eliot Coleman, plan their garden around crops for each season. The name of their place is Four Season Farm, and she works hard to encourage gardeners to take advantage of the unsung seasons.
“There is this mindset that vegetable gardening is for summertime, like a summer romance — and then everyone goes back to jobs and the supermarket,” she says. “If we can grow vegetables year round in Maine, you can do it anywhere.”
In Maine, Damrosch and Coleman rely on greenhouses for winter crops. Backyard gardeners not yet ready for a greenhouse can have great success with a simple cold frame, she says; these structures, with plastic or wooden sides and a transparent top hinged to the frame, are inexpensive and easy to set up and use. A cold frame allows gardeners in cold climates to grow spinach, carrots, leeks, and other crops through the winter.
“In this country, we have so much winter sun,” Damrosch says. Sun warms the soil and the crops inside a cold frame, and the structure protects them from winter winds, too.
Damrosch gardens intensively. She keeps her soil healthy by incorporating lots of compost into the soil and by rotating crops, so the tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and corn do not grow in the same spot in her garden every year and deplete the soil.
Damrosch is a flower gardener, too, but she believes that vegetable gardens are every bit as pretty as flower gardens. “A well-planned, well cared-for garden full of rows of beautiful, flawless food is the prettiest thing I can imagine,” she says. The harvest goes far beyond beans: “There is a wonderful relationship you develop with a food garden. It becomes an intimate part of your life.”