Winter Gardening - yes, vegetables
I know it sounds crazy, but winter gardening is very possible - even when it comes to vegetables. I should be saying, especially when it comes to vegetables because they tend to be much more cold hardy than many other plants.
Unfortunately, many of us have never looked at vegetables that way. Maybe it's time we do.
For those of you who hate to see the vegetable gardening season end, now it doesn't have to. If you plan for it, you can have vegetables year round.
All it take is the right kind of vegetables, the right approach, and some basic resources.
Cool weather vegetables can be grown, or at least harvested in cold weather, so we have an opportunity for a year round harvest by using winter gardening techniques. What better news for gardeners? The vegetable gardening season never ends!
Winter Gardening - Factors to Consider
Even though vegetable gardening in the winter is entirely possible, there are still a lot of factors to consider before you jump in with both feet. Winter gardening isn't for everyone, so let's take a look at some of the factors that can be important to consider.
- Are you willing to learn? It's vegetable gardening in a new way, so there is a learning curve associated with this.
- Are you tired of vegetable gardening at the end of the summer season? Some people are, and that can throw a wet blanket on winter gardening.
- Are you willing to plan for it? Plants that require a long growing season won't give you much time for "hot-swapping" beds, so there is some planning involved.
- Do you have the space for it? If you won't be able to "hot-swap" beds, you'll need to have space dedicated to plant late summer and fall vegetables for a winter harvest, and these will overlap with summer vegetables that are still providing a harvest.
- How much sunshine to you have? Is it enough to heat up an enclosure or row covers to keep your plants alive? If your winters are long, dark, cold and overcast, your chance of success and the range of vegetables that you can grow will probably be limited.
- Is your winter so harsh and formidable as to make this unrealistic? Without heat, the folks in Alaska probably will have a difficult time with something like this.
- Do you enjoy cool weather crops like beets, broccoli, radishes and greens? If you don't like them, there's no sense in growing them.
- Are you willing to dig up or harvest vegetables outdoors during the winter? This is where a greenhouse or garden tunnel will come in handy. It can offer protection and keep the soil from freezing absolutely solid.
You'll need to think about these and other considerations before you take the leap. A little planning in this area will help ensure that winter gardening is fun and productive.
The Right Plants for Winter Gardening
So, if you are going to grow and harvest in the winter, what exactly can you grow? The varieties of winter vegetables are many, but they aren’t going to be things like Tomatoes, Melons, Eggplant and Peppers – plants that love warm weather.
They will be cole crops and other winter vegetables that enjoy cooler temperatures and can withstand below freezing weather.
These vegetable types can't be planted and grown in the winter, but they will allow a harvest in much of the winter months that are considered off season to the normal summer gardener.
Territorial Seed Company has a fall/winter catalog, and it features 24 pages of cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc.), root crops, alliums (onions and garlic), lettuce, European greens, Oriental vegetables and spinach that are all suitable to cool and cold weather gardening. It's not like we don't have a wide variety to choose from when it comes to winter vegetables.
An unusual experience with broccoli and kale show their affinity for cold weather. I planted both of these cold weather vegetables in the spring and they began to grow rather well in the cooler weather and lengthening daylight. Once the hot days of summer set in, they slowed their growth to a crawl. They were in a kind of suspended state waiting for cooler weather.
When the summer vegetables were giving us their last fruits and showing signs of stress because of the consistently cooler days and nights, the broccoli and kale started growing again as if someone had turned on a switch. How nice it was to see something in the garden that appreciated cooler weather.
Given protection inside a greenhouse or garden tunnel, vegetables like these can make it through the winter months to provide you with fresh eats from the garden.
In most of the U.S., vegetables can be grown, or at least harvested, in any month of the year without the need for a heated enclosure. In some of the northern areas, a harvest of winter vegetables will require an enclosure and row covers, but these don’t have to be fancy or expensive. They can be an unheated garden tunnel or greenhouse.
Basic structures like tunnels, greenhouses and cold frames, and resources like row covers are good long-term investments in year round good eating and good health. So if you're interested in making the most of vegetable gardening, and you like the idea of harvesting in the late fall through early spring, then you'll want to carefully consider the idea of protection for your cold hardy vegetables.
Let's be clear about one thing. We shouldn't be interested in fighting Mother Nature, but rather working with the natural way of things to get what we reasonably can using a combination of the right plants and adequate protection for them.
If you have a greenhouse, growing winter vegetables will help you make full use of it when it would otherwise sit idle. A winter harvest is a good way to make your investment pay bigger dividends.
Winter Gardening Requires No Water
The main cause of plants failing as the weather gets cold is water freezing in the cells of the plants and rupturing cell membranes. This makes the plants droop and die.
To avoid this, we need to back off on watering during the late fall, just when we start to get consistently cold temperatures. This should help avoid killing the vegetables when a hard freeze sets in.
If your winter vegetables have moisture from the fall, but no added moisture during the winter, they most likely will last much longer even in temperatures well below freezing. My lettuce plants survived temperatures of about 12 degrees, and didn’t show any signs of problems. They like it warmer, but they are capable of making it through nights that would kill most other plants.
My turnips, bok choy and Swiss chard got a little beat up once the temperatures dipped below zero, but with only one row cover in addition to the greenhouse, they survived minus 14 F. That's 45 degrees below freezing. The ground they were in was frozen solid, but they were just fine. That's winter gardening.
Winter Gardening Harvest Techniques
When we harvest, we do so only in the warmth of the day, after the plants have had a few hours to get well above freezing in their protected environment. Whether it's a cold frame, a garden tunnel, or an unheated greenhouse, the temperatures during the day can get rather warm with just a little bit of sunshine.
I understand if you don’t allow the plants to warm up for a while, you might be harvesting mush in the middle of the winter. Several hours above freezing is necessary for the plants to recover from the deep freeze.
For root crops, it's a little different. You might need to dig up vegetables from frozen ground. This isn't a pleasant task, but one that will have to be done if you're going to leave your carrots, parsnips and rutabagas outside in nature's giant refrigerated section.
Winter Gardening with Root Crops and Squash
Another thing you can do to provide food in the winter is identify over-wintering root crops that can stay in the soil until spring, or at least store better when left in the ground as winter sets in. Varieties like onions, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas can be left in the ground longer and harvested throughout the winter by digging them up. Some winter vegetables are meant to winter over just fine for a spring harvest.
One spring while roto-tilling the garden, I hit upon a couple of onions that hadn’t been uncovered during the harvest of the previous year. They popped up onto the soil as the blades of the roto-tiller dug them up. I examined them and found them to be in excellent shape.
If you have an enclosure, you’ll do even better at keeping an underground harvest ready to eat. Your crops will have the protection from extreme cold and wind, and most importantly, you’ll have a protected area in which to harvest. It is no fun digging out in the unprotected garden when the wind is blowing snow all around you.
You can also focus part of your efforts on growing winter squash that you'll harvest just after the first hard frost. The fruits can be stored in the basement or a cellar or other cool and dark location. If you have a few of the fruits to draw upon each week, you'll have plenty of food over the winter to supplement some of the fresh food you'll be growing with your winter gardening practices.
Winter Gardening Tips
Here are a range of winter gardening tips to help you on your way.
- Use ground level garden beds for the best potential to capture ground source heating.
- Don't expect to grow much of anything, just harvest what you have already grown.
- You'll need to do some experimenting since each micro-climate offers it's own set of challenges and opportunities.
- Start out small with your experiments.
- Build on your experience, and the experience of others.
- Try new things to help you determine what is most effective for you and your unique situation.
- Build a permanent structure for winter gardening if this is going to be a regular activity each fall and winter.
- Don't fight nature, but work with it. It's easier if you don't have to artificially do anything.
- Winter vegetables only, nothing else can take the cold.
I'll build on this base of tips as I get additional insights and experience. In the meantime, feel free to share with me any ideas you would like to contribute regarding your success with winter gardening.
Winter Gardening References
For information from an expert in winter gardening and construction of enclosures, pick up Eliot Coleman’s book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long. Mr. Coleman has done an excellent job of stretching the normal growing season in both directions until there is no distinct season for vegetables – all year long vegetables are a possibility.
His book documents many ways to grow and harvest winter vegetables in detail. If you are serious about having a harvest of winter vegetables, this book is highly recommended. It is well written and illustrated, and provides good foundation for the advice it offers.
If you're interested in short season and cold weather vegetable gardening, I'll be happy to share with you how we do it in Wyoming. Here's our approach to cold climate gardening where the growing season is relatively short.
Good fortune to my winter vegetable gardening friends. Let me know how you're doing with respect to this vegetable gardening challenge.
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