Applying Eliot Coleman’s methods in the Northwest
By Elizabeth Schwartz
In January and February, the thought of organic salad greens just plucked from a cold frame, brought into the kitchen, and tossed in oil and vinegar is especially tantalizing. It seems a good time to take a look at Eliot Coleman’s teachings and how they apply to the Pacific Northwest.
Coleman’s book Four Season Harvest, published in 1992, is a detailed description of how the organic pioneer developed his process for growing salad greens throughout the winter months in Maine. More recently, Coleman has begun advocating that people consume fresh, locally grown produce from small organic farms rather than organic food grown by large corporations.
Coleman’s early years
Eliot has had 40 years of experience with organic farming. In addition to running his commercial farm in Maine, he advised the USDA during their 1979-1980 study resulting in the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. He has lectured extensively on the subject and written three books: The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and Winter Harvest Manual. Further information can be found at his website, www.fourseasonfarm.com.
Coleman began farming and researching new organic methods in 1965, three years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her book exposed the dangers of DDT, launched the grassroots environmental movement, and ultimately led to the banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1970. Eliot found ways to grow food without using any harmful pesticides.
Coleman spent years learning to build better compost and adding organic matter to the soil on his Four Season Farm. He hauled seaweed in from the coast. Leaves from neighbors’ properties, animal manure, and minerals joined the seaweed in his compost piles. He took careful notes on what vegetables grow well on oak leaf mold and which ones prefer less acidic soils. He tried various crop rotations and found combinations that help vegetables thrive. His discovery that plants grown in his compost-rich soil fought off pests without harmful chemicals, led Coleman to conclude that fruits and vegetables could only be as healthy as the soil that feeds them. People could only be as healthy as the food they eat. He calls produce grown using his “deep organic” methods “authentic food.”
Deep organic, authentic food
In recent years, Coleman has partially shifted his focus from how to grow authentic food to writing and lecturing on the importance of eating food grown within a 25-mile radius of where it is consumed. He compares health benefits of eating food grown on small, local organic farms with produce grown by large corporations. Produce grown by big business cannot, Eliot reasons, be as healthy as locally grown authentic food for two reasons. First, he claims that corporations are primarily interested in profits.
Consequently, they do not grow their produce in dynamically healthy, living soil as USDA organic standards–while requiring improvement of soil quality–do not specifically require farmers to work organic matter into the ground. He has dubbed food grown by large corporations as “shallow organic.”
Second, produce grown on large farms is usually harvested before peak maturity and transported long distances to consumers. Since peak taste and nutrition occur right after fruits and vegetables are harvested, such produce will not, Coleman claims, be as healthy as fresh, locally grown organics.
Applying Coleman’s methods in the Northwest
When I lived in Idaho, I read Four Season Harvest and followed Coleman’s instructions for growing winter vegetables. I experimented with growing greens in an unheated greenhouse, in which I lay row covers over kale and mache growing in heavily mulched soil containing high percentages of organic matter. I threw old blankets over the beds when nights promised to be extremely cold. The result was enough home grown greens to supplement what I bought in town. Since I am currently landless, I spent several weeks this past fall looking for sources of fresh vegetables to eat this winter. When I asked a grocery store produce manager if he has local sources for salad greens, he raised his eyebrows, “You mean California?”
A Google search netted two year-round farmers’ markets in the Pacific Northwest: one in SE Portland, one in Gold Beach. I began wondering why it is difficult to find locally grown vegetables this time of year.
After talking to local farmers and gardeners, I found that many Pacific Northwest growers interested in organics have experimented with Coleman’s cold weather growing methods. Most modify them to meet their personal goals and to adapt to their microclimates. I found local gardeners who used his book to learn how to build moveable cold frames, lay out row covers, select cold hardy vegetable varieties and to schedule planting and harvesting dates. The book contains extensive, detailed drawings, charts, and instructions that most gardeners I spoke to find easy to follow.
Lyle Stanley of Gee Creek Farm extends his fall season by mulching heavily and using greenhouse structures. As a result, he was able to sell fresh vegetables until late January last year, but did not have another crop for sale until June. I asked him what prevented him from selling year round. “It’s just too dark,” he said, to replicate Coleman’s results at his farm. He has tried them all.
Four Season Harvest addresses microclimate issues, but not those unique to the Pacific Northwest. For example, the Northeast Regional Climate Center shows that Portland, Maine, near Coleman’s farm, gets nearly 30 percent more sunlight during January than Portland, Oregon. The higher light levels in Maine provide for more chlorophyll synthesis and plant growth than is possible under lower light conditions in our region. This growth allows Coleman to cut one planting of salad greens several times during the winter. At Gee Creek Farm, low light and cool temps slow plant growth, increasing the amount of time between possible harvests. As a result, Lyle has been unable to make growing winter greens economically viable since he does not utilize supplemental light.
Home owners, small farmers, and larger farms located in sunnier microclimates may be more successful at utilizing Coleman’s methods to produce fresh food all year. For example, farms in cloudy or foggy microclimates can bring cold hardy vegetables to maturity in the fall and harvest them as needed during years when too much cloud cover stops plant growth. It is possible to keep several varieties of cool weather vegetables alive through Pacific Northwest winters. “If you read Coleman carefully,” Lyle told me, “you’ll see that greens can survive down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit without dying.” Except at high elevations, heavy mulch and protection from the wind shelter plants adequately during cold spells in our region.
It takes effort, flexibility, and dedication to obtain “authentic food” during the winter. Depending on your microclimate, growing your own may require the use of Coleman style cold frames, row covers, and deep mulch. Gardeners blessed with warmer, sunny microclimates may only need good soil, time-tested seed varieties, mulch, and row covers during the worst cold spells. Years of experience and experimentation on your own land are required, but Four Season Harvest is a good reference.
People who do not grow their own may need to make an extra effort to find places to purchase deep organic authentic food during winter and early spring.
The bus trip from my home to a year-round farmers’ market takes me an hour each way. Although I live three blocks from a Safeway, I will make the trip several times this winter to purchase locally grown brassicas and lettuce. I want to enjoy the fresh, crisp taste of recently harvested greens and honor the work of organic pioneer Eliot Coleman.
Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer who transplanted herself to Portland from Idaho.