It’s a few days before the winter solstice and the temperature is 55 degrees. Guinevere Higgins—founding board member of City Schoolyard Garden and co-founder of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest—stares down at an arugula patch that’s been flattened by Fern, one of her two dogs.
“I think they actually like to nibble on it,” she says.
We’d planned to talk about winter gardening strategies, but her 10′ x 20′ plot is flourishing with 15 or so types of cold hardy plants and she hasn’t even had to break out her row cover, a spun polyester blanket that’s water and light permeable and her preferred method for keeping out frost and pests. There’s even a lone fennel plant still thriving, long after it should be finished.
“One of the huge benefits of this climate is you can grow year round,” Higgins said.
Higgins and her husband Gerald Soriano moved into their new home in Belmont during the July heat wave, so she didn’t bother to plant summer vegetables, but the unseasonably warm winter has seen her fall crops thrive. A Wellesley College graduate with a certification in permaculture design from the Blue Ridge Permaculture Institute, Higgins originally moved to Charlottesville to start an experimental school, but after a stint in environmental philanthropy she’s now focused her attention on organic gardening and returned to education.
Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest is her for-profit garden consulting business through which she teaches skills like crop rotation, soil amendment, and pruning with a focus on edible, native, and low-care perennial plants.
You may also recognize her from her work as a board member of City Schoolyard Garden, a hands-on learning program in the Charlottesville City Schools that will expand this year from its home at Buford Middle School to all six Charlottesville elementary schools. In February, the nonprofit will hire its first executive director and six part-time garden coordinators, a significant expansion made possible by support from the Charlottesville City Schools (CCS), local foundations, individual donors, and community partners. In addition, CCS curriculum coordinators assist the organization in implementing project-based learning models to teach concepts like the scientific method.
“The garden is such an incredible leveler. When you get the kids out of the classroom, which can be such a hierarchical place, some of the kids that you might be tempted to write off as not academically inclined find their niche,” Higgins said.
Higgins also serves as the garden coordinator for The Haven’s community garden, which accomplishes the dual purpose of providing tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and greens for The Haven’s breakfasts and a destination for the nonprofit shelter’s considerable food waste throughout the year, which gets turned into compost that is returned to the garden beds. Oh, and she’s the founding member of the Charlottesville League of Urban Chicken Keepers (CLUCK).
“We like to take a holistic approach to plant health. You always have to be thinking about the soil. And you have to put the plant in the right place,” Higgins said.
I asked her for a rough guide for starting a new garden in the New Year. Now is a perfect time to get your soil tested. Higgins recommends UMass-Amherst’s test for backyard gardeners because it only costs $10 and includes results for heavy metals like lead and cadmium.
Virginia clay is generally acidic, and adding lime is the best way to correct that. Lime takes two to three months to impact pH, so now is the perfect time to add it to be ready for the spring growing season. Clay, while generally full of good nutrients, is also dense, so adding compost will help improve soil structure. Higgins gets hers at Panorama Pay Dirt in Earlysville, but warned that they are officially sold out of compost until late February or March. She also recommends adding a trace mineral agent, like Planter’s II, which is available at Countryside Organics in Fishersville.
Once your soil’s ready, get a copy of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s 2013 catalogue, hot off the presses, and pick what you want to grow.
Three seed packets you shouldn’t pass up
Even’ Star Winter Arugula: Arugula is awesome because it germinates quickly, even in intense heat and cold, and it’s delicious fresh in salads and as a cooking green. This variety is bred specifically for mid-Atlantic winters and can withstand temps as low as 6 degrees!
Green Arrow Shell Pea: I used to love snap peas above all other peas, but shelling peas have since taken their place as they are so much sweeter. Even though the pods are tough, I find them much more satisfying to munch. You know it’s time to plant peas when the Forsythia begins blooming.
Chantenay Red Core Carrots: These are super sweet and do well in our clay soils. While carrots can be difficult to germinate, they are so rewarding to grow in cold weather —the cold actually causes the roots to store more sugars for a sweeter flavor.—Guinevere Higgins