Seed tests yield winter-hardy greens
These plants produce through much of the winter, expert says
By STEVE BROWN
CHIMACUM, Wash. -- John Navazio gestured toward a sampling of freshly harvested vegetables, all of them varieties of radicchio.
"Americans are used to seeing just one variety, but radicchio comes in many forms and colors," he said. "They're especially good for you (small farmers) because they're a cold-weather crop, extending your season."
Navazio, research and education specialist with the Organic Seed Alliance, was speaking during a Nov. 11 farm tour at Finnriver, a farm south of Chimacum on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
"Endive and escarole lose it at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but radicchio and other chicories are cold-hardy, providing salad greens and cooking greens any month of the winter."
Navazio said farmers are ramping up seed production of 21 radicchio varieties this year. Those varieties' colors make for unique market opportunities, he said.
Seed growers are also working on a winter carrot that can handle the freeze-thaw cycles common to the area.
"We're dancing on the razor's edge, where temps get down to 10 to 15 degrees F," he said. Navazio described plantings under cover in eastern Canada that continued to produce down to 14 degrees F.
The idea is to extend the growing season as long as possible without erecting tunnels -- "better living through less plastic," he called it. "But if you're into tunnels, you can go to minus 10 F."
Navazio mentioned the "Persephone period," those days with less than 10 hours of daylight. Winter plants are not growing, but are still alive. The radicchio, whose taproot system is "an incredible scavenger of nutrients," he said, is an excellent candidate for the winter market.
Planting times also affect how a crop will withstand winter temperatures. One test row was planted the first week of July and transplanted the first week in August. Another was planted three weeks later. The later planting didn't reliably make heads, he said, but they were more cold-hardy. "You can sell these as loose-leaf lettuce in January or February."
The head varieties can be refrigerated in bags, where they'll keep well for up to three months.
It all starts with the seed, Navazio said. "The right seed comes from good varieties for the region, whether it's cover crops, grains or vegetables."
People who get their seeds from catalogs have a limited selection, and they're dependent on what is available. If a variety has been discontinued, they're out of luck. But those who grow their own seed in network with other farmers always have a wide variety, specifically suited to their growing conditions.
Some local growers are even producing for those seed catalogs.
"The local economy of seed evens out the farmers' market. That's what's powerful," he said.