By Carol Howard
Local food. Slow food. Whole food. Food grown in season, and fresh food for every season. This is what consumers who value health, wellness and regional awareness have come to expect. “As the local food economy has grown, we’ve created a customer who is looking to eat locally as much as possible,” says Dr. Mary Bulan, professor of sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College.
Asheville residents and visitors love the farmers’ markets of spring and summer, but we have come to expect local and organic produce in late fall and winter, too. “Farmers are finding that we have the biological ability to grow food year round,” says Bulan, and the savvy local farmer tries to maintain customers throughout the year.
As the popularity of the Organic Growers School and Extension Master Gardener programs suggests, though, many local residents also want to grow their own food, and some home gardeners want fresh, nourishing, organic produce from the kitchen vegetable patch long after mid-October. When the first frost has come and gone, and those colder days linger, some gardeners will still be tending to a succession of fall and winter produce.
The familiar cast of characters in one’s back yard may include cool-weather root crops: carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips, rutabagas. What a glorious palette of dark pinks, muted purples, rich browns and orange, and even the soft hints of a yellowed beige! There are the above-ground winter vegetables, as well—collards, chard, broccoli, and spinach—those amazing, vitamin-packed green foods that, with patience and care, grow through the relatively mild winters of the Asheville area.
Above all, there is kale. Kale is the poster child for vitamin-rich, slow and local food. In the Scotland of centuries past, the vegetable patch that helped cottage dwellers survive the winter months was called the ‘kailyard.’ What was meant by ‘kail’ in Scots dialect was closer to what we think of as cabbage, although some of today’s popular kales are cousins to those same cabbages within the Brassica oleracea species.
A gardener looking for a winter kale has many varieties to choose from in this climate. While Siberian kale tends to be hardier than the plants in the Mediterranean species, both can do well in our winter climate. “Our most popular variety, because it’s most easy to grow, is Lacinato or ‘Dinosaur Kale,’” says Angie Lavezzo, general manager of Sow True Seeds in Asheville. This is the kale whose green-black bumpy leaves look downright prehistoric. “It’s versatile, too: you can sauté it, bake it for chips, and it’s good raw because it’s not super tough,” she adds. She hopes, though, that gardeners will try out some other kale varieties, too, such as Red Russian and Red Ursa, whose pink-hued stems and veins add a distinctive layer of vitamins.
Best of all, as Bulan advises, “the flavor improves in the cold weather, as the sugars develop.” Kales that may taste bland in the heat of summer take on new and complex qualities as the temperatures drop. And this cold-fostered natural sweetness may be the best reason to be aware of the season as we grow or purchase our fresh produce.
Find out more about the Warren Wilson College organic farm and garden sales and the educational program in sustainable agriculture at warren-wilson.edu/student-life/food/. Discover Sow True Seed’s array of open-pollinated and heirloom flower and vegetable seeds at sowtrueseed. com. Sow True Seed packets are also available in stores throughout the region (check the website for locations).