Book Review: Eliot Coleman’s Handbook

IN THE DEPTHS OF WINTER, THERE MAY BE NO BETTER “READ” for an enthusiastic backyard gardener than a book about year-round vegetable production, and The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman is the king of books on year-round vegetable growing.

Coleman is the master of “using deep-organic techniques and unheated greenhouses for year-round vegetable production.” He surprises the reader by showing how to grow vegetables, or at least extend the harvest season, with no external heat source during Maine’s cold winters. Most gardening enthusiasts will read the cover and want to know: How does he do that?

Maybe the most astounding point in the Handbook is that you can magically transport your garden 500 miles, or three USDA zones, to the south by adding a hoop house and row covers.

Easy, inexpensive, healthy and flavorful

The guiding principles of Coleman’s Handbook are “simplicity, low external input, and high quality output’s.” That’s another way of saying food production should be easy, inexpensive, healthy and flavorful, which is in line with the premise of the Suburban Hobby Farmer blog.

Based on his inspiration and some of his principles, I made my first attempt at cold house gardening this year. Using a very small, hand-made hoop house and an inexpensive cold frame I had purchased a year earlier, I grew lettuce, arugula, radishes and beats in my southern New Hampshire backyard.

The arugula came out best. Followed by the radishes. I had much more difficulty with the others, probably because I didn’t follow some of Coleman’s key points. My big mistake was not picking a raised bed that got enough sun in the winter months. The one I selected got plenty of sun in late spring and summer, but not enough sun in the late fall and winter.

But the arugula I grew was pretty interesting. When you put it in your mouth and began chewing it, the taste started off buttery and a little bit sweet. But at the very end, just before you swallowed it, the taste grew very strong, almost bitter. It was like no salad green I had tasted before. Certainly, it was more flavorful any other salad green I had grown – even when compared to the arugula from the same seeds grown in late spring. I wouldn’t say it was the best I’ve grown, but it amazed me that growing the same plant at a different time of year could result in such taste difference.

Coleman grows arugula, but also radishes, turnips, turnip greens, Swiss chard, watercress, and parsley in the cool house during the winter months. In order to be successful with most of his crops, he carefully times his plantings because most crops must reach a certain minimum size before the day length drops below the 10-hour mark. In other words, timing is very important if you want to successfully harvest in winter.

Exacting and detail-oriented

Backyard gardeners may be put off by Coleman’s exacting and detail-oriented nature. After all, he is a professional farmer and not a backyard gardener. For example, he takes extreme pleasure in getting his tools just right. “Stop considering the tool you have [as] a finished product [but] rather consider it as a point of departure.”

This may go too far for some of SHF’s readers. If you’re the kind of hobbyist that throws a few seeds in the ground, adds store bought compost and waters when needed, this book is not for you. Keep in mind, gardening in the cold of late fall and winter is no day at the beach. You have to really enjoyed it to be out there when the mercury dips below 50°. But wow! Fresh salad in January. My guess is some of you will want to try.

The bottom line is if you use what Coleman has learned to extend your growing season a month earlier in spring and a month later in fall, it’s well worth the price of the paperback in terms of enjoyment, health and maybe even savings on vegetables.

Finally, Coleman has the right sprit for suburban hobby farmers. He says, “farmers should always share ideas with each other.” I hope you will share your ideas on this post by commenting below.

Related articles you might enjoy:

1. Book Review: Eliot Coleman’s Four-season Harvest
2. Hoop House Kits
3. Growing Lettuce in Winter

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Eliot Coleman's The Winter Harvest Handbook
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