Winter Harvests

by Elspeth Hay

Winter Harvests

We first met Eliot through the book. My husband, Alex, and I got to know Eliot Coleman through the pages of the Winter Harvest Handbook, spending a whole August one year pouring over chapters on erecting a greenhouse, warding off pests, choosing varieties of spinach and lettuce and carrots to survive the cold. We took his advice and ordered a frame—metal poles and a wooden door and thick plastic to wrap tight around top. We planted the Space Spinach and Napoli Carrots and Mizuna and Four Season lettuces in neat, careful rows. We watched and waited and when the chill set in, reaped the reward—that Eliot! What a guy, to help set us up like this at home.

Meeting him on his own farm, seeing the extent of his work and his care—that was another acquaintance entirely. Alex and I toured the old Nearing land where he and his wife Barbara had made a life: cleared the trees, logged the wood, dug out the stumps, and built a farm. We saw the movable greenhouses—the metal runners that went from the tomatoes to the winter greens to the spring seedlings to the strawberry patch. We picked lemons from the Meyer tree, limes and oranges next to that, and took off our boots along with the farm hands and their girlfriends and husbands and kids when the time came to sit down for lunch.

Barbara made a wholesome, riveting spread: fresh baked bread, cold sweet butter, and an all-farm November vegetable dish. Wholewheat pasta was tossed with a lemon tahini sauce, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, cauliflower, and that deep green Tuscan kale with skin like a dinosaur. There was fresh cider on the table, water jugs, and twelve porcelain plates with benches lined up for everyone.

Alex and I sat with Eliot and Barbara at one end: asking, listening, interjecting, and taking another bite. They told us about their trip to France, their travel from Maine to Avignon along the same 44th parallel line. They told us about the winter harvest, how it starts in August and mounts slowly all winter long, pausing only in January when the daylight is too short. “That’s when the plants go dormant,” Eliot laughed, “and we do too.”

We left full, satisfied, and curious, too: what could we accomplish in an 8-by-20 foot greenhouse on sandy Cape Cod? The answer changes, we discovered, every season and every year: Swiss chard one spring, Tennis Ball lettuces come fall. Over-wintered carrots and onions one winter; the next, garlic that’s ready in May.

One thing’s for sure: inspired by Eliot and Barbara, we’ll be harvesting again in the coming months—fall, winter and spring.