Winter Harvests

Broccoli in potager garden

Other than the overwintering garlic and onions, the food garden has a slight rest this time of year — from December through January. Even so, there are still some harvests.

Persimmons
Hachiya persimmons adorning winter landscape

With the pandemic and recently reinstated stay-at-home order, we’ve been going to the store as little as we can — relying on the garden more than usual. Persimmons provided nearly all of our fruit needs this whole last month or so. We grow both Hachiya and Fuyu varieties. The Hachiyas are the larger kind, with a pointy tip. They are inedible until fully ripe when the orange turns from opaque to a subtle translucent orange. A gentle press with the finger feels like pudding. If they get sort of shriveled, they are past their prime, although I know at least one person who still eats them at this stage (you know who you are). You can pick them before fully ripe and decorate a windowsill with them, but it’s best to let them go through at least one frost outside beforehand. It makes them sweeter.

Fuyu persimmons are the squat variety, looking a bit like a teeny pumpkin. They are eaten when orange and still firm. I usually just cut them in wedges like an apple and eat them fresh, although I imagine they would be good in some salads, sliced super thin and maybe with some pomegranates sprinkled in.

Hachiya persimmons ripening on windowsill

The persimmon trees are worth growing for their beauty alone, with gorgeous fall color and bright orange fruits that linger after the leaves fall, decorating the landscape with festive cheer just when you long for it. And, they fruit so prolifically that there will likely be extras for the flickers and other birds who love them too. Prop up heavy branches with a board or something, as the branches are brittle and the fruit is heavy.

Some people like to preserve persimmons by drying them. I tried dehydrating some last winter and they were delicious, but as they are a very wet fruit, it took longer than I had patience for. I may try it again by blending them into liquid and making a fruit roll up instead, so that the “batter” would be thinner than the sliced fruit, and dry quicker.

Mushrooms
I’m not sure shiitake mushrooms are particularly photogenic, but they are delicious!

But something really worth dehydrating and available this time of year is mushrooms. We grow shiitake mushrooms in oak logs and they keep fruiting for many years. We thought our current logs were spent until we got our first winter rains this year and, oh joy, up popped another flush of shiitakes. As they tend to come up in batches, are quick-drying, nutritious, and expensive in the store, they are a good candidate for dehydrating. After drying, I keep them in an air-tight container in the frig and use them in soups and other dishes.

You can receive the spawn plugs and instructions from Fungi Perfecti. At first ours did not do very well until we moved them into a bit more sun and stacked them on end to maximize growing surface. They receive a short daily misting from our irrigation system during summer. We harvest using a mushroom knife or a small sickle knife, and then lightly clean under the faucet with a cute mushroom brush. The dehydrator I like is called Sahara. It’s pricey, but miraculously folds down for storage, which is a big plus. Also it has a wide selection of temperature ranges, including low enough for mushroom drying, and a large capacity.

Broccoli

Beside the persimmons and mushrooms, there is a lot of broccoli in the garden right now. All of our veggies have to be grown in raised beds with gopher wire on the bottom. I’ll write more about that another time. The broccoli grows in the raised beds and needs extra (organic!) fertilizer to keep them doing well since they are heavy feeders. After the main broccoli head forms and is harvested, many side florets continue to form over weeks if we are lucky. For a fast super veggie in my dinner, often I just snip off a small handful of florets, wash, and dip in a tiny bit of salad dressing for healthy crudités.

Olive Oil

Perhaps you want to saute those mushrooms and broccoli in a stir fry? Great! December brings fresh olive oil. Sonoma County is in what is defined as a Mediterranean climate zone, so olives do very well and are beautiful trees in the landscape. Some people grow the varieties best for brining and eating; most of ours are best for olive oil, and that is what we do with them. Our oldest trees are nearly 20 years old now, the younger ones about 15 years old–all planted from 1 gallon nursery pots. We only started harvesting in the last few years; before that there weren’t enough olives to seem worth it. You can buy older trees (see Urban Tree Farm in Resources) and they transplant well. Our “olive grove” is a small affair, compared to true olive growers in Sonoma County. We don’t have any mechanical equipment for harvesting. Just ourselves. It’s actually fun. But, the harvesting must happen pretty fast, as the fruit degrades quickly once picked, and we run it to the mill the same day.

There are community olive milling sites where you can harvest from a single tree or two in your yard or neighborhood and take in what you have during a scheduled community milling day. The miller weighs your harvest, combines everyone’s harvest into one batch, and then each person receives the percentage of oil they brought in according to the weight of olives they supplied.

Happily for us, there is also another miller in our area that will take in small batches (at least 50 pounds though) and give you your own olive oil. You must call and schedule in advance for this service.

Lemons

It took us years and many failures to find a spot on our low-lying property to be able to grow citrus. Even slightly higher elevations have no trouble. Our temperatures here can get up to 100°+ in a summer heatwave, and down to 15° in a bad cold snap. We tried and failed in several places: in the ground near the houses, and in another sunny garden area, in containers right next to south-facing wall of house, and none of those worked. The plants survived and produced limited fruit, that’s all. Before giving up, we tried one last chance–up on a slight hill, to allow for the draining away of cold temps moving along the ground, but which is rather exposed to wind and surrounded by open field. We built raised beds to protect from gophers and give good drainage. Finally the lemons are doing well and we have plenty for cooking, using fresh and freezing. Mostly we just squeeze them into water for drinking.

Speaking of lemon-water, a real game-changer for me two years ago was getting a sparkling water maker. It doesn’t require any electricity or water hook-up, and it makes tap or filtered water into bubbly water–so much more fun to drink! It just requires reusable canisters of carbonation (wait! is this bad for the environment? Answer here.) It’s useful to be able to make your own sparkly drink, especially if you are trying to cut down on high-calorie drinks like soda or beer or even kombucha. And it cuts down on bottle recycling or trash that would otherwise be made. Add some lemon to the bubbly water, or a tiny splash of pomegranate or orange juice, maybe a bit of tea, mint leaf or lemon verbena leaf from your garden, or whatever tickles your fancy, and you have a much lower-calorie, enjoyable drink.

Kale

Kale is pretty much ever-present here. In fact, it almost grows like a weed, self-seeding everywhere. The gophers will eat it but they don’t prefer it, so a seeded plant may make it to maturity in unprotected ground. We grow them in beds anyway so we can count on the harvest. We like both the Dino and Red Russian varieties. Dino kale is a convenient shape for the juicer. Add some fresh apple and fresh ginger and bingo, you have a nutritious drink. The red kale I usually stir fry, or use in potato-kale soup. More on that another time.

Wishing you a peaceful, cozy and healthy winter!

Red Russian Kale in the winter garden

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