It’s a frigid day in Lower Austria, a region famous for farming, but where pale fields lie fallow for the winter. The gray mountains of the Alps stand snow tipped on the horizon. In front of them, leafless trees brace themselves in the icy wind.
One hint to how vegetables survive cold weather lies in the taste: Many vegetables form a kind of frost protection in their cells made of sugar, which explains the sweet taste of, say, the roots and tubers that we traditionally think of as winter vegetables. If they did not form this protection, the cells would burst at sub-zero temperatures because the water inside them expands when it freezes.
That means that those vegetables that don’t have this protection mechanism, like salad greens or tomatoes, need a little extra help. But it turns out, not quite as much help as we might think. In the 19th century, market gardeners in France and Great Britain cultivated vegetables in winter by keeping their garden beds warm with dung, something Palme is also experimenting with alongside his plastic tunnels. With the combination of new and old methods, he was able to produce high yields of tomatoes in unheated tunnels until well into November.
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In addition to frost hardiness, Palme is researching the right time to sow seeds, looking for the perfect balance of soon enough (to enable the vegetables to develop sufficient root systems and take in enough sun from late summer and autumn), but not too soon (to make sure the summer crops can come to full fruition and make maximum use of valuable space). As Palme puts it poetically: “Autumn is the spring of winter.”
Palme wants to provide practical knowledge, which is why, along with the Institute’s three research stations, he collaborated with seven vegetable farms from different climatic regions in Austria between 2016 and 2019 to observe his methods applied. But the research also focused on the socio-economic aspects of winter cultivation.
“Winter vegetables are good for small and medium-sized farmers,” says Palme. They allow farmers to use land year round, save energy and expand their product range. It also gives products a narrative: one about the changing seasons and sustainable management — something that is becoming increasingly important to customers.
One of the farms employing Palme’s tactics is the Krautwerk in the Lower Austrian village of Großmugl, run by Claudia Detz and Robert Brodnjak, a couple originally from Vienna. Detz worked there as an accountant, and Brodnjak as an IT specialist. In a leap of faith in their market garden, where they grow 200 varieties of vegetables on only 3.5 acres (a little less than three football fields), they dared to leave their day jobs and become full time farmers. At their weekly stand in the Viennese Carmelite Market, the two sell 600 kilograms of vegetables in just a few hours. Krautwerk also supplies ten restaurants in Vienna, including the Michelin-rated Steirereck, recently ranked one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.
Detz says that a wide variety of customers come to them seeking something close to home, and willing to pay a premium. “Our customers have a high regard for food and they are willing to pay extra for sustainable production,” she says, pulling her hood close around her face. The bitter wind of the morning has been followed by equally frigid rain, and drops trickle down onto the tunnel where Robert Brodnjak is planting portulaca and pak choi.
The career changers have found their niche with their winter crops. The range of their ten varieties of winter vegetables complements their summer crops, providing extra winter income and enticing new customers. Soon they’ll expand to include new winter options, including chard, beets and lettuce. They have low costs and profitable direct marketing. They also have a sophisticated space-management system aided by planning software from the U.S., which they discovered at the Young Farmers Conference in New York, an annual meeting of small market gardeners who are primarily interested in sustainable cultivation and consumption.
Palme wants the practice of winter farming to grow, and to enjoy increased awareness throughout Austrian society. To that end, he has founded the City Farm in Vienna. In the centrally located Augarten, the largest park in the city, a variety of winter vegetables grow just as colorful as in the Zinsenhof. Workshops are held here almost daily and school classes tend their own beds. “You can’t start early enough,” says Palme, and suddenly, as if on command, the bright voices of the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir begin wafting over the garden from the nearby Augartenpalais, where the choir lives and rehearses. I ask Palme: Do their voices make the winter vegetables grow faster? He grins: “We haven’t researched that yet.”