A Cold Welcome: Growing Your Own Food

Gardening Q&A With Jim Hankins of the Fauquier Education Farm

Gardening has so many benefits! Not only can you grow your own delicious healthy food — your salad can’t get any fresher than lettuce picked from your garden 15 minutes before dinner — but it’s great for your mental and physical health, and the kids can get involved too. Did you know that immersing your hands in the soil is said to have antidepressant effects?

In this ongoing series, we hope to help current gardeners as well as inspire beginners to start. Fauquier County has so many resources to support gardeners, and a lot of people with a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Jim Hankins, executive director of the Fauquier Education Farm, is our local expert, and he is answering questions from our readers.

Is there anything that can be grown outside this time of year? What does the Fauquier Education Farm have out in the fields right now?

There isn’t anything that can be planted mid-winter. We do have garlic and onions growing in the field, but they were planted back in October, they will over winter and be harvested next July.

Any plants that can be started indoors now? Any tips? What is the Fauquier Education Farm doing right now?

We start planting our cool season crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in late January. The goal is to have at least 6-week-old transplants that can be put out into the field in mid-March. We plant these in a heated greenhouse, but you can start them in a very sunny window or under lights. They need a lot of bright light; more is always better. If your seedlings get tall and leggy and fall over it’s because they didn’t get enough light, and you really ought to start over. Even cool season crops need a bit of warmth to germinate so heat is important too.

I haven’t gotten around to clearing the (now dead) summer crops from my raised beds, can I just leave them for the winter? And when I do clear, should I pull up the roots or just cut off what’s above the ground?

It’s perfectly fine to leave dead plants in the garden over the winter. It’s best if you leave the soil covered rather than bare, and dead vegetable plants can be helpful if you haven’t covered the soil with a mulch like leaves or straw. Organic matter is really important to your garden so if the roots and stems aren’t going to cause difficulty in working your soil in the spring it’s best to leave them in your raised bed to break down and create more nutrients.

I dug up a few of my pepper plants before the last frost to try to overwinter. Any tips for caring for them inside?

Pepper plants can stay alive over winter but are not likely to successfully give you much fruit. If you feel it’s an attractive house plant, it will need lots of bright light and moderate watering. It most likely would be better to start over with new plants in the spring, if growing peppers is your goal. Healthy new plants in the spring tie will be much more vigorous and productive.

I’ve started thinking about my spring planting. Are there any seed varieties that you recommend for greens, broccoli, or cabbage? The slugs and broccoli worms destroyed my crop last spring!

There are lots of different varieties to choose from but our standby dependable varieties are, Green Magic broccoli, Snow Crown cauliflower, Blue Vantage cabbage, Vates kale, and Bright Lights Swiss chard. There is a very safe and effective organic pesticide called Pyganic that can easily control the pest, just be sure to read and follow the directions.

I planted carrots last spring that I’m still harvesting from. Will they be ok through the winter or should I pull them?

Your carrots will be fine over the winter, but you should pull them in the early spring. They will attempt to bloom when things warm up and that will make the roots tough and fibrous.

Any other tips you have relevant to winter gardening?
Good quality seed catalogs are usually an excellent source of information on when to plant and how to grow each crop. Even if you never intend to buy from Johnny’s Seeds you should get their catalog because of the grower tips. I tease folks all the time about a top-secret source of information on growing vegetables. All the information you need on when to plant, how far apart, and the number of days to maturity is on the back of the seed pack. All you need to do is read and follow the directions. Just turn the pack over and read the back!

Have a vegetable gardening question for Jim? Send it to editor@warrentonlifestyle.com and it might be answered in our next issue.

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Piedmont Lifestyles Publications welcome contributions from any and all members of the community. Email news and photos to editor@piedmontpub.com or call us at (540) 349-2951.

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