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bringing in the january tomato harvest

Few things are as satisfying as harvesting fresh homegrown tomatoes and Swiss chard while winter settles into its remaining four months.

Few things are as satisfying as harvesting fresh homegrown tomatoes and Swiss chard while winter settles into its remaining four months.

For the backwoods hermit staring at rows of canned veggies in the pantry, plucking a fresh tomato off the vine in January is a decadent feeling. And it’s entirely doable without an extra 20 cords of firewood for the greenhouse.

We hit upon the marvels of winter indoor gardening completely by accident. A few years ago, our first winter in the bush saw us well equipped with food, amount-wise, but with little variety.

When dinner time came, the veggie choice was pretty much between canned peas and canned beans, with the odd can of spinach thrown in for a taste bud surprise.

We had heeded the advice people gave us to purchase assorted mung bean, lentil and mustard seeds for sprouting, to have something fresh to eat now and then. But despite valiant efforts with canned bean and sprout salad, sprout sandwiches and sprout stir fries, we never managed to work up sufficient enthusiasm about their taste to make a serious dent into our mung bean supplies.

Most of it eventually found its way into the chickenfeed while we developed a twisted masochistic pleasure for reading through cookbooks filled with recipes we couldn’t make because we didn’t have the ingredients. But oh, we fantasized!

Thanks to those somewhat deprived months of our first winter, by February I was driven to start an impossibly large number of seedlings for the garden, and many more tomato plants than our greenhouse could possibly accommodate.

I just wanted something fresh and green, and lots of it. In spring, straggly tomato plants crowded all available space in the cabin, yet at planting time I was reluctant to condemn the surplus plants to the compost heap.

In the cabin they stayed, with rather little soil in the containers, getting fried in the window and generally not prospering. However, by the time snow began to fall and their greenhouse cousins had long wilted into the compost pile, the cabin plants still carried fruit and were even setting new flowers.

Growth proceeded at a glacial pace, quite in keeping with the wintry scene on the other side of the windowpane, and at night the poor light-starved plants would take a noticeable lean towards the white glare of the Aladdin lamp.

But what a treat to pop a sweet tomato into your mouth you have no other way of getting.

Unfortunately, they have yet to last through a whole winter. Sam is usually gone for contract work for a couple of months and that always is the undoing of the tomatoes.

In contrast to me, Sam is equipped with the kind of internal plumbing that necessitates at least one midnight trip out under the stars and, while up, throws another log on the fire. When he is gone, the cabin is usually chilly in the mornings and a cold snap always brings an unwelcome end to the winter tomato harvest.

We have expanded our winter gardening program to now include Swiss chard — dug out of the garden in fall and transplanted into buckets in the cabin. This is a real winner, not only can the plants survive a harsh in-cabin frost, they also keep growing at a very decent pace, allowing for regular leaf consumption.

The holidays out here passed quietly as usual, with CBC Radio’s holiday programming and merciless repeats of previous repeats providing a link to the carrying on in the outside world.

My festive meals included sandwiches with fresh tomatoes, Swiss chard, chives and fresh herbs, as well as the last two of our store-bought eggs.

Alas, the chickens are still not laying despite the addition of bean sprouts on top of all the other pampering. Such is the thanks for not converting a few into Christmas dinner. At least they provide the crucial ingredient for the manure tea that keeps the winter garden going.

In the future we plan to try out other vegetables that lend themselves to container gardening and manage to get by with fairly little daylight. Finding the space in the already crammed cabin is a bit tricky but it is certainly worthwhile to keep sprout dishes at bay.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.