As winter wraps us in her chilly embrace, here on the home farm we are totally jazzed about the winter planting season. Cold weather brings plants into dormancy, creating an opportunity to introduce new additions, such as fruit trees and edible shrubs in the mint family (Lamiacea). Winter rainfall generously irrigates and softens the ground to make digging a cinch. Any dry, sunny spell between storms offers a weather window to put as many trees and shrubs in the ground as possible. By the time sunny spring rolls around, roots established over the winter months will provide support for abundant spring and summer growth.
Home orchards grow enough fruit to sustain our household year round with sweetness. In our small-scale setting, we prefer to plant dwarf fruit tree varieties. Reaching full height at around 10 feet, miniature fruit trees provide abundant harvest in a small package. Their small size allows us to plant an assortment of fruit trees — we'd rather have more choices when it comes time for making dessert, anyway. Once planted, orchards require little maintenance and offer a beautiful backdrop for the vegetable garden. The hardest part about cultivating an orchard is waiting for the trees to bear fruit — it takes a good decade for a full harvest. However, the perfectly ripe, freshly picked fruit still warm from the sun is well worth the wait.
Before planting any fruit tree, make sure it grows well in our mild-winter/cool-summer climate. We're focusing on our favorite fruits here on the home farm: apples, lemons and peaches. From blossom to harvest blush, apples offer an amazing display of cheerful color and delicious flavor. Cox Pippin, Honeycrisp and Fuji are all great choices. Local nurseries offer rootstock with multiple apple varieties grafted onto one tree. This saves space and boosts pollination for better fruit yields. Each variety ripens at a slightly different time, so we'll have apples throughout the harvest season. Fresh apples can be stashed in boxes in the garage for cool storage throughout the winter. We also cook fresh apples into applesauce, apple butter, apple pie filling, apple chutney and apple jelly for the pantry. Meyer lemons offer massive, sweet-tart fruit with deliciously scented blossoms. These lemons thrive in areas out of the wind and in full sun. We love fresh lemon juice anytime to add zing to home-grown, dark leafy greens, or for juicing and freezing for later use. Countless dessert options including lemon marmalade, meringue pie and bars. The Frost peach is the go-to peach here on the North Coast. Most peach varieties require hot summer temperatures to set the fruit, but the Frost variety has the amazing ability to set fruit in the fog. They are a bit tarter than inland grown peaches and lend their flavor to pies, crumbles and smoothies nicely.
The mint family (Lamiacea) includes many familiar culinary and medicinal herbs such as mint, rosemary and lavender. For those beginning gardeners out there, establishing a mint patch offers an easy and rewarding weekend project. The classic mint-flavored plants, including peppermint and spearmint, also come in additional flavors like chocolate and pineapple. These plants can grow pretty much anywhere and the tougher the soil, the better. After the mint is planted and becomes a sizeable patch, we go out and cut it to the ground, pull the leaves off the stems and dry in a dehydrator for a couple of hours, until the leaves easily crumble. Just like that, we have a supply of delicious herbal tea for sipping hot or cold. Peppermint and the gentle spearmint calm upset tummies, and help with relaxation.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus), "dew of the sea," is a beloved garden classic. In formal gardens, rosemary creates amazing topiaries and hedges. In more casual settings, it offers amazing fragrance and flavor, with a dusting of tiny blue flowers in the winter. Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary prefers full sun and soil with good drainage. Small plants can be started in ceramic pots then moved to the ground once they've grown for a couple of years. Rosemary can grow to be huge, so periodic heavy pruning may be required. It is said that rosemary boosts brain power and helps the body digest fats. Rosemary's close cousin lavender has similar growing requirements. Lavender soothes us with its dreamy purple flowers and scented blossoms. For those who haven't seen the lavender fields in Southern France, this plant really brings magic to the landscape. We prefer to grow French lavender here on the home farm because of its silver foliage and heavily scented blossoms. Lavender should be harvested right when the blossoms are fresh — that's when they have the most fragrance. Their flowers can be made into many wonderful products including eye pillows, sachets and wreaths. Like any homegrown herb, after a year it should be thrown out and replaced with freshly harvested material. If there is ample room, why not make a field large enough for making lavender oil? Lavender oil offers relief from headaches and has some disinfecting properties.
Ditching screen time for more time in the garden reaps many bounties. We grow enough fruits and herbs to share our harvest with neighbors, friends and family. A weekend afternoon spent under clear skies accompanied by bird song gives us a time to reflect on our connection to our food, any month of the year.
Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at www.healthy-living-everyday.com.