Based on how many unproductive patches of dirt you see in winter time (doing nothing but sitting and waiting for spring), it would seem most folks think you can’t grow food during the winter. Well, guess what? You totally can; it’s not even that difficult (unless you live near the arctic circle). To enjoy fresh vegetables in December all it really takes is a little know how – and maybe the odd piece of construction.
-Plant winter crops in late summer (table for common crops below), july to september, allowing them to catch the last of the sun. This will help them establish their root systems to prepare them for harsher weather.
-Plant cultivars of plants that are hardy and bred for winter conditions if possible.
-Plant enough crops to last the winter.
-Mulch your soil. It’s an essential part of winter gardening; Mulching insulates. You’re best option for mulch becomes available when fall comes around and trees drop their leaves everywhere. Gather and store leaves like a fiend. Mulch will protect the soil and roots. They also slowly decompose into the soil and provide nutrients. You want about 4-6 inches of mulch.
-Keep the shoulders of root crops covered.
-Most hardy veggies handle temperatures down to -5C/23F without cover and down to -10C/14F with minimal cover (minimal being nothing but a plastic sheet weighted down with rocks).
-Cold frames (can be as simple as small wooden frame with a plastic sheet stapled to it – like a miniture greenhouse) are a great way to improve your winter crop yields. Or you could just quit being lazy and put together a greenhouse. There are many ways to build a cheap, simple, sturdy greenhouse.
-Look into building a heated greenhouse. Some example methods of heating a greenhouse include taking advantage of the heat given off by a frequently turned compost pile (make sure the compost has some space, aerobic decomposition can get very hot) or you can build a greenhouse onto the south wall of your house and leave the back door open/replace the back door with a blanket.
-In particularly cold climates (regularly below -5C/23F degrees), some form of cold frame/greenhouse is pretty much necessary to grow in the winter. In temperate climates (winter temperatures usually within 5 degrees of 0C/32F) you can actually grow some tropical fruits in a greenhouse, especially if it’s heated. Of course this is when things are kept relatively simple, there really isn’t a limit to what you can grow. You can even go all out you can grow bananas in the Rocky Mountains; it’s actually been done.
-Snow isn’t a bad thing; it insulates. It’s like a work-free mulching.
-When harvesting leafy greens, instead of harvesting the entire head you should take a layer of outer leaves from each plant. The more leaves you leave, the more surface area to absorb sunlight.
-Placement for winter beds should be south facing in an area that will receive as much sun and heat as possible. Take into account the low sun angle in winter and the long shadows that will be cast. Protection from wind is important; protection from rain is worth considering but isn’t that important as long as the soil has good drainage (the mulch will reduce a lot of the compaction rain causes). An ideal place for winter beds would be something like on the south side of a house or a stone wall.
-Use raised or angled beds. A bed at a 30-45 degree slope will be warmer than a flat bed because the slope receives more direct sunlight.
-Don’t forget to take measures to keep the soil fertile and productive. Till the beds (if you till); add fertilizer before each crop is planted (worm castings, compost, manure, whatever); and consider the last thing planted in each area, following the crop rotation of heavy feeders, heavy givers, then light feeders.
-Place large stones along the edges of winter beds. Stones absorb the heat of the sun and slowly release it.
-When leafy greens freeze they don’t always die. They often recover as soon as it’s warm enough to draw up water again. Do not harvest plants when they are frozen, they will turn to mush when thawed. Some crops (kale, brussels sprouts, parsnips) actually taste better after freezing. If you have a rather persistent cold spell and it does kill foliage, don’t give up yet because roots often survive and grow new tops when the weather warms.
-The flavor in many plants benefit from cold weather.
PLANTING TIMES OF COMMON WINTER CROPS
February/March – Leeks
April/May – Swiss chard, celeriac/celery, parsley
Early June – Brussels sprouts, cabbages
Mid to Late June – Winter broccoli, winter cauliflower, parsnips
Early July – Carrots, beets, rutabagas, endive, radichio, swiss chard, kohlrabi
Late July to Early August – Arugula, fall and winter lettuces, turnip, kale, daikon and winter radish, chinese greens, spinach, winter onions/scallions
Late August to Early September – Corn salad, cilantro, arugula, winter lettuces
October – Garlic
Some of this may not apply to every northern bio region and micro climate. Think of this more as a guideline to get your creative brain juices flowing and helping you to maximize your winter harvests. Now quit being scared of having to go outside when it’s cold; get a jacket on and get your butt in the garden.