Do you long for the taste of fresh garden salad when the days are short? If so, it may be time to learn something our ancestors knew and people are rediscovering nationwide: the joys of winter gardening.
It may be hard to believe, but bountiful winter harvests are possible. Winter gardeners even enjoy some benefits over fair-weathered gardeners.
Many pests hibernate or migrate when the weather gets cold.
Weeds grow slower.
Because of low light and less evaporation, plants usually need far less water in the winter.
But how do vegetables survive snow, howling winds, or torrential rain? Successful winter gardeners must follow three essential steps:
Plant cold-hardy vegetable varieties.
Protect them from the elements.
Know when to plant them.
1 Cool Season Veggies
Attempting to grow summer crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, or melons, outdoors in the winter is a recipe for disaster. Instead, plant the following cold-tolerant crops, which thrive when the temperatures dip. They’re divided into slow-maturing, middle-maturing, and quick-maturing crops, which is useful when timing plantings for your region. (These maturation lengths are estimates; check seed packets for specific information.)
2 Protecting the Winter Garden
You don’t need high-tech devices to protect winter crops from the elements. Simple, inexpensive materials do the job, and most of them can be added to an existing vegetable garden. ‘Four-Season Harvest’ author Eliot Coleman points out that cold-hardy plants don’t necessarily need warmth during the cold months. They need protection from wind, excessive moisture, and extreme temperature fluctuations.
It may sound counterintuitive, but warmth can actually be more destructive to winter gardens than cold. Conditions inside many of these protective devices can quickly become sweltering on a warm, sunny day and kill plants. It’s crucial to open devices to allow ventilation.
Coleman advises winter gardeners to err on the side of too cold rather than too hot. Winter crops often do best when several protection devices are combined. Start with the least protection you think is needed and see how plants do, then add more protection as necessary. For instance, mulch plants and cover them with a row cover, then invest in a hoop tunnel if needed. Or start with a cold frame and add a string of Christmas lights to turn it into a hot box during a cold snap.
3 When to Plant Winter Crops
The key to a thriving winter garden is to plant crops soon enough that they have time to mature before the first killing frost. That’s why knowing the approximate maturity lengths for different cold-hardy plants comes in handy.
Gardening through the frigid months is not for everyone. However, gardeners who are willing to experiment with planting cold-tolerant veggies at the right time and protecting them from the elements will be rewarded with the delicious taste of homegrown greens on the coldest, darkest days.