Gardening is not just for the warm, sunny months of the year. In fact, many types of vegetables are better suited for cold season cultivation. Winter gardening is not as complicated as you might think, as long as you understand optimal sowing times, how to protect your plants from the cold, and what veggies to plant. Here’s how to get started!
Winter Gardening & Timing
There are three growing styles for the colder months. In the first, you sow your seeds in the fall, perhaps even as early as August, so that they mature by the first frost and are ready for harvest by early winter. The second style involves short-season vegetables, plants that reach maturity quickly in three to six weeks. The final growing technique is called overwintering. Seeds are sown in autumn and become dormant once the temperature drops below a certain point. As soon as the temperature rises back up, the plants continue growing and are ready for harvest in early spring. Between these three growing methods, you’ll have produce to harvest all winter long!
Protecting Your Plants From Cold Damage
Even the hardiest of winter plants can take damage from extremely cold conditions. As a rule of thumb, you should plan on implementing the following protective measures if temperatures reach 25°F or lower.
- Row Cover: A row cover is a plastic or fabric tarp, frost blanket, or other cover held up with hoops over a row of plants. The material is designed to allow in air and sunlight, while insulating them against frost. Once the threat of frost is past, you can take off the row cover to allow the plants more sunlight and airflow.
- Cold Frames: A cold frame is a low-standing structure of plastic or glass windows that protects your plants from frost and warms the soil around them. It looks and operates much like a greenhouse, but it does not have climate-control systems like heating and ventilation. A cold frame is a superior option for gardeners living in especially frigid climates.
- Cloches: Before greenhouses were invented, European gardeners of the 1600s used cloches. These bell-shaped domes of glass are placed over individual seedlings and work just like miniature greenhouses. Though modern technology has mostly replaced the cloche, the concept is still handy in a pinch, especially for the beginner gardener. If you don’t have a glass cloche, you can also use a transparent plastic container, like a liter soda bottle or milk jug cut in half.
- Greenhouse: The most ideal option for protecting winter plants, a greenhouse is a large plastic or glass structure that houses plants often with the help of climate-control systems. You may be most familiar with greenhouses the size of a small house, but there are other more affordable options as well. These full-sized models may run up to a couple of thousand dollars, but the smaller ones, especially those you build yourself from a kit, may only be a couple of hundred dollars.
Cold-Loving Veggies To Plant In Your Winter Garden
Now that you have an idea of when to plant your seedlings and what special protective measures you’ll need, you can start thinking about what types of veggies you want to grow. First, find out your region’s hardiness zone using the United States Department of Agriculture Growing Zone Map. Once you know which zone you’re in, you’ll be able to find a list of vegetables that can tolerate your climate region.
Contrary to what most people might think, there is a long list of plants you can grow in the wintertime. Some may require a full greenhouse, while others may get by with just a cloche or row cover. Consider the following types of plants for your winter garden.
- Winter Herbs: If you live in zone 6 or above, you can plant certain herbs in the fall and then transfer them to a greenhouse before the first frost. Try growing winter herbs like sage, chamomile, tarragon, lavender, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, chives, and parsley.
- Leafy Greens: Great for hearty winter stews and replenishing your vitamins, leafy greens will do wonderfully in a greenhouse or cold frame. Plant them in the fall when it’s still warm out, then cover them with the cold frame once the temperature drops. Leafy greens will produce more sugar in reaction to the cold, giving them a mild sweetness to counteract their natural bitterness. Experiment with leafy greens like kale, radicchio, cabbage, spinach, bok choy, arugula, collards, mustard greens, and brussels sprouts.
- Root Veggies: Root vegetables are a time-tested plant for winter gardening. Frost won’t affect them, and freezing temperatures will only make them produce more sugar. Plant them in the fall and cover them with a cold frame for a mid-winter or early spring harvest. Winter is the best time to plant root veggies like rutabaga, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, and carrots.
- Overwinter Veggies: Some veggies are hardier than others due to their ability to withstand the cold in a dormant state before growing again once the warm weather hits. Overwinter veggies are best grown in raised garden beds, containers, or a greenhouse. Introduce your garden to hardy veggies like broccoli, peas, celery, cauliflower, and onions.
Don’t let your gardening tools accumulate dust over the winter when you could be enjoying delicious homegrown produce all year long. Look forward to traditional borscht using your root vegetables, fresh garden salads of leafy greens, healing teas from your herb garden, and hearty overwinter veggie mixes come springtime. With the help of some additional protective measures, winter gardening can be just as fruitful and diverse as warm-weather gardening.