The Best Winter Crops and Cold-Hardy Foods To Grow
At this point in the season, your vegetable garden has likely seen better days… But if your beans are burned out and your cucumbers are kaput, take heart in the fact that there is still much gardening left to do!
In fact, with proper planning and care, there is no reason you won’t be able to harvest fresh vegetables nearly year-round!
So if you aren’t ready to shut down your garden until spring, read on… We’ve got a number of tips and tricks to keep your garden and kitchen stocked with fresh veggies even through the harsh months of winter.
To accomplish a successful winter vegetable garden, you simply need to be able to solve a few simple questions, namely, what, where, when, and how. That is, what to plant, where and when to plant it, and how to keep it growing.
What to Plant
There are a number of vegetables that are more resistant to colder temperatures, and even enhanced by a bit of frost. For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on 10 of our favorites.
In alphabetical order, they are: Cabbage, carrots, collard greens, leeks, lettuce, kale, parsnips, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnips.
We will provide extra information and tips to grow these vegetables in the “how” section of this article, but first, there are a few other things to consider.
Where to Plant
To be as best prepared as possible for some of the natural challenges you will face by gardening through the winter, you need to be familiar with the regional limitations of where you live and garden.
That includes the average annual extreme minimum temperature, approximate depth of frost, as well as the first expected killing frost.
To find this out, you can contact your local agriculture extension service or familiarize yourself with the needs of your area on the USDA website.
No matter what Mother Nature has in store for you in your region, however, there are ways to extend your growing season and minimize the effects of the weather on your winter garden:
Location, Location, Location
A popular and simple tip to shield winter vegetables from the elements is to plant them along the south side of a building.
This will maximize the plants’ exposure to the sun while helping keep them protected from harsh winter winds.
An alternative method is to build makeshift windbreaks around your growing area to protect them in the same way.
Raised Planting Beds
The soil in a raised bed will stay warmer than the rest of the ground, so for winter gardening it is a good idea to plant in one.
One popular way to create a raised bed that will maximize the effects of the sun is to build it atop old tires. The black rubber of the
tires will absorb the suns heat and further heat the elevated soil. Some people do not like the potential chemical seepage of this method though, so do some research and decide if this method of raised gardening is right for you.
Cloches are another great way to control the climate around your vegetables, assuming you don’t have a greenhouse at your disposal.
A cloche is essentially a portable, miniature greenhouse made to fit over an individual plant and keep it warm and protected from the elements.
On warmer days of winter, these may actually need to be opened to allow some heat to escape.
If you don’t care to purchase or build individual cloches, there is an easy way to create a larger version using ½ inch PVC pipe and plastic sheeting.
Simply make an arch over your growing area with pipe and cover it with clear plastic.
Depending on the size of the garden you intend to grow, you will need at least one arch for each end of the row and perhaps one or more in the middle.
Take care with cloches that the plastic doesn’t come in direct contact with the foliage of the plants, as in cold conditions this can actually cause more damage to the plant than no protection at all.
Once your plants are established, a healthy layer of mulch around them will provide a good degree of additional insulation to the plants and underlying roots.
If conditions in your region are warm enough, the mulch will also slowly break down and continue to release extra nutrients into the soil, essentially self-fertilizing the plants for you.
When to Plant
Timing and planning are key in a successful winter garden. Depending on your region, what you plant, and when you intend to harvest given vegetables, you will need to back-date your planting accordingly.
If growing from seeds (often the most economical choice as they are often on sale this time of year), the approximate dates from sown to grown are available directly on the back of the seed packet.
As a good rule of thumb, you will want to add a few weeks to the number provided though, as late-season growing is often a bit slower than that in warmer months.
If growing from seedlings, the same maturation information is often available on the tag, or from your local garden center.
While typically planted in the spring, there are actually a few advantages to planting cabbage late in the summer and growing it into winter.
Insect and pest risks to the plants are generally lower later in the year, and many varieties of cabbage actually have their flavor enhanced by a bit of frost.
Savoy types of cabbage are the most cold-tolerant due in part to their deeply textured leaves.
January King and Marabel are varieties that especially hold up well as the weather deteriorates around them.
The key to cabbage is to get it in the ground ASAP. Late summer sowings of cabbage have a great chance of success as long as they are allowed to establish themselves before the first frost date.
Another vegetable that does well in winter and is even enhanced as the cold and frost sets in is the carrot.
Sown in late summer, carrots mature through the fall and the cold temperatures stimulate extra sugar production and accumulation in the roots, not only giving them great flavor, but also natural protection against freeze damage.
Carrot tops are hardy to as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the roots can withstand even colder temps.
A heavy layer of mulch or straw around the surface of uncovered carrots can make them much easier to harvest when extra cold temperatures arrive.
Cold frames and cloches can also provide an extra degree of protection and preservation.
Large and leafy, collards are among the most cold-hardy of greens. The Blue Max variety of collard provides good yields and is hardy down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Seeds should be sown in late summer or early fall, allowing about 10 weeks before the first expected frost.
Properly protected from subzero temps, collards can be harvested through the winter and into spring and are a favorite staple of many southerners alongside fried chicken or added to a pot of soup beans.
Expensive to buy but relatively easy to grow, leeks are a great choice for a winter garden, as dark and blue-green varieties of leeks can withstand temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leeks can be harvested at nearly any point in their growing cycle. While typical harvest time would be when the stem reaches at least an inch in diameter, younger leeks can be dug up and used much in the way scallions are.
In especially cold areas, the growing season of these onion relatives can be prolonged by a deep layer of mulch around plants.
Continue harvesting until they become hard-frozen into the ground.
While many people suggest that lettuce is too cold-sensitive to grow in a winter garden, the key here is planning and timing.
Heat and drought-resistant varieties of lettuce also tend to be the most hardy in cold temperatures, surviving dips to as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit when properly protected.
Immature plants are also more likely to survive colder conditions than mature plants, and harvest is most successful if consistently done in the baby leaf stage.
As far as variety, many seed packets contain a variety of types of seeds, so planting those types will be the best way to ensure success in your area.
While most often planted early in the spring, fall gives another near-ideal time to plant this cold-tolerant plant.
In fact, fall and winter crops of kale tend to take on an especially sweet and nutty flavor after being touched by frost compared to spring crops.
With a little extra protection from mulch or covers, kale will typically survive through even harsh winters and should only be discarded in the spring when they bolt and produce yellow flowers. To harvest, pick leaves up
the stalk, leaving at least 4 along the growing crown of the plant. In zones 7-10, kale will continue to produce leaves all winter long. Discard leaves that appear yellowed or ragged.
Surprisingly, parsnips are not grown or appreciated as commonly in the United States as in the United Kingdom.
Resembling carrots but a bit sweeter, parsnips can be used in much the same way as a carrot, be it baked, boiled, pureed, steamed, added to soups and stews, and even eaten raw.
Among the slowest of winter vegetables to mature, often taking up to 130 days, parsnips typically must be planted by late spring for a winter garden harvest.
Generally hardy to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, these vegetables can be much easier to maintain in colder temperatures than others.
Like cabbage, spinach does especially well in the cold when you select savoy varieties as opposed to flat-leaf types.
Winter Bloomsdale and Tyee spinach are among the best for your winter garden. When properly protected or grown in cold frames or cloches, this tough little plant can provide you with fresh leafy salad greens well into even cold winters.
While extremely cold temperatures can cause these plants to die back in winters they often will produce fresh new leaves early in spring.
In a similar fashion, Swiss chard can survive winter and regrow leaves in the spring if properly mulched and protected through a harsh winter. More popular as a fall-harvest plant, chard can actually survive dips to as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
Green and white varieties tend to be more resistant to cold and have a milder flavor than the more popular multicolored varieties. Among increasingly popular superfoods, chard is often boiled, drained, and mixed with Mediterranean dressings for a tasty and healthy side dish.
While typically sown in the spring and reaching maturity in warm weather, late-season turnips tend to produce a more preferred taste, having lost a bit of spice and increased sugar content.
Hakurei variety turnips are among the most delicious and desirable to grow, however they are not as cold-resistant as many winter vegetables due to the fact that the bulk of their roots remains above ground.
Still, depending on your growing zone and care, you can harvest these tasty turnips right up until the weather dips to around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
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