Winter Greens

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 13 November 2019.


What to do this week

The garden is just about done for the year, but already I want to keep the taste of something fresh in my kitchen. Fortunately this year it is not too late to bring some of the garden indoors, or to extend the picking season. Last year, with the early heavy snow, I missed out, but this year I still have time to dig up some parsley, chives and thyme and pot them up for my kitchen windowsill.

I already have some chopped parsley saved in the freezer. I wrap it tightly in a log shape and cut off what I need to freshen up a soup or stew. But something about a green and growing thing makes me feel more cheerful about the winter darkness. Parsley, chives and thyme do well in the cool, low light conditions of this season. Parsley especially doesn’t seem to mind being clipped back regularly. I generally pot it up in good, fresh potting soil to keep it perked up and producing. I will also fertilize the chives with fish fertilizer every few weeks. Like other alliums, they are heavy feeders.

Young parsley. Photo by Goldlocki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The only time I had any winter success with basil was when I commandeered an old aquarium and grew it in that under lights. It really needs the extra warmth, light and humidity and even a south-facing windowsill just doesn’t cut it in a Cape Breton January. It is hard to justify the resources needed to grow anything seriously under growlights.

If you have a rosemary plant, you have hopefully already brought it indoors. You should cut back on light and watering rosemary somewhat in the winter. And don’t fertilize it until early spring, when it starts to show some new growth. I found that it helps to mist it occasionally, in the dry winter air. After all, it is native to Provence, which is warm and humid. Be careful to examine it occasionally for any inadvertent whitefly or aphid incursions when you bring it in from the outdoors or the greenhouse. You can control such pests with a strong stream of water in the shower, or by using insecticidal soap, but left unattended whiteflies can quickly spread to your other, tender houseplants and become a problem.

It may be too late if your peppers were out in the garden, but if you have yours in the greenhouse, you can bring them into the main house to overwinter. Peppers are perennial in their original habitat and you will find that they will overwinter quite well indoors. They will go into a kind of dormancy, and again, you should cut back on water and fertilizer until the days lengthen in March. After that, they will send out flowers amazingly early and you will have edible peppers by the end of June. The stalks will get thick and woody and the second year can be incredibly productive if you can keep up with larger pots.

I also save back a couple of celeriac roots and let them send up shoots. They give a strong, green celery taste that kicks up a sauce or stew.

The garden itself can be encouraged to prolong the harvest. I pick kale until the snow covers it up and I have dug leeks on Christmas Eve. If you are energetic enough, you still have time to cover a bed of kale or chard with a low tunnel or small hoophouse and harvest it most of the winter, or as long as you are willing to shovel it out. For maximum harvest, use row covers under the hoop house as well. Only pick when the temperature under the hoops is above 0 C to avoid damaging the leaves. The plants will not put on any new growth in the winter, so the stage of growth you have now is what you’ll be eating. I have tried seeding chard and kale indoors and then transplanting it late in the fall but hardening it off is impossible and they just die. It is easier to throw a cover on what is already growing, or to seed it much earlier in the fall.

Black mustard seed. Photo by Sanjay Acharya, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For a fresh green bite in the winter you can also grow pea shoots and microgreens, which I described in an earlier column. The only trouble now is getting seed if you didn’t think of this with your seed catalogue order in the spring. You might have to phone around to your favourite seed companies and see which ones are still doing mail order this time of year. William Dam and Halifax Seed have a good selection and both have helpful customer service people that will help you out if they can.

If that fails you, there is the old hippy standby of regular sprouting. More than just alfalfa these days, you can sprout lentils – nice and spicy – brassicas, and sunflower seeds. Speerville Mills in New Brunswick has an excellent selection of sprouting seeds for many tastes but I have sprouted lentils and black mustard seeds from the bulk bins with good success. Apparently you can even buy sprouting seeds from Amazon if you don’t mind that kind of thing!

All sprouting takes is a clean mason jar with some nylon netting attached with an elastic on the top. Put in the seeds and rinse twice a day in cool water until they’re the size and taste you like. Easy!




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.