Survive + Thrive

Harsh Boston winters hinder year-round consumption of homegrown produce

By Caylan Davis


The Slow Food movement advocates purchasing locally grown food because it's fresher, better for the environment and supports the local farmers who produce it. A growing number of people in Boston have embraced eating locally to the extent that they've become farmers themselves, something that can be a challenge in the New England winter.


Betsy Johnson, board member and treasurer of the American Community Gardening Association, said the vast predominance of community gardens throughout the country are for growing food and their presence is rising.

"The creation of gardens and their continued existence is exploding," she said.

Boston is no different. Community gardens are thriving and more popular than ever.

"People are paying attention to nutrition and eating healthier...and people are paying attention to the carbon footprint in terms of buying food from elsewhere. It seems like something that everybody has a reason to do," Karen Chaffee, urban wilds/stewardship manager of Boston Natural Areas Network, said.

The food that's grown in community gardens can often serve as the main source of produce for some people, Chaffee said.

In the winter, however, gardening becomes much more difficult. The cold temperatures and the lack of light provide poor growing conditions.

Johnson said some community gardens can preserve their produce for the winter but many community gardeners have no choice but to get their vegetables from traditional sources during that time.

Willow Blish, a leader of Slow Food Boston, grows produce in a rooftop garden. She stocks up for the winter by freezing extra summer fruits and vegetables, so she and her family can enjoy them long after the harvest season is over.

But some gardeners don't have the time, space or ability to can or freeze summer and fall produce for out-of-season enjoyment.

One way to combat the cold is through professionally installed gardens with cold-weather protection.

Green City Growers installs, maintains and harvests year-round gardens for homes and businesses in Massachusetts.

To operate year-round, their gardens require a cold frame that functions as a mini-greenhouse on top of the garden bed that keeps it up to 40 degrees warmer than the air outside. Cold frames cost $350 per every 4-foot by 4-foot area.

"These cold frames protect against the nighttime below-zero temperatures, and allow us to grow crops such as spinach, kale, all kinds of lettuce and braising greens, and carrots deep into the winter," Benjamin Bois, director of horticultural operations at Green City Growers, said. "Essentially, the plants will continue to grow until the beginning of January, when there is really not enough light."

The cold frames are in high demand, Jessie Banhazl, owner of Green City Growers, said because "the growing season is a lot shorter than other areas in the country and the cold frames at least definitely let you extend the growing season for a month on either end."

While the cold frames help to extend the growing season, the winter months are still a huge challenge.

"In terms of growing enough that you could be eating from your garden during January and February, probably not," Banhazl said, "but you can definitely harvest and continue eating from your garden through December and then starting again in March."

For those who can't afford to pay professionals, it's possible to start a garden without any help. "It's not too hard and it's really rewarding," Banhazl said.

Ali Carter, a Boston University student and Slow Food enthusiast, decided to try to grow her own food last spring. She planted tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers in containers on a window's sill in her room.

The plants outgrew their pots and were transplanted to BU's Organic Gardening Collective where she continued to care for them.

"The most challenging part of it was putting in the time to water, weed and care for the plants," Carter said.


As a new gardener, Carter often made mistakes. "It can be discouraging when one of your plants dies or isn't doing well," she said, "but you try to learn what caused that consequence and fix it."

Not able to continue growing her own plants in the winter, Carter tries instead to buy her produce from local farms and some farmers markets that continue to operate in the cold season.

Like Carter, Megan Johnson also has grown vegetables for the past three years in a tight space: on her apartment's fire escape in Beacon Hill.

A passionate proponent of local food, Johnson said growing her own vegetables is not only healthier, but it personalizes the eating experience.

"I really like knowing when, even if it's a few cherry tomatoes, I like knowing that I grew this in an apartment building on the fire escape," Johnson said.

Johnson said she grows a variety of vegetables at home and frequents farmers markets as often as she can.

"I feel like it's important for people to learn how to, I don't want to say live off the earth, but to stop buying so much crap," she said.

However, during the winter months, the inclement weather prevents Johnson from being able to maintain her garden. And like many other gardeners in Boston, she's forced to rely on store-bought produce.

"I know some people can do it," Johnson said of gardening in winter, but because of the added hassle, she said, "there's no way I'd be able to."

Media Credit: Green City Growers and Megan Johnson


The rule of the game was never assume that anybody, however honorable, would be able to stand up under torture. If Mr. X, who knew where I was, was caught for some reason, I should move.

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