Summer is winding down, yet it doesn’t mean you have to stop gardening. Winter gardens are an incredible way to keep fresh vegetables on the dinner table all year-round. And, they are incredibly rewarding. Harvesting fresh vegetables when its frosty outside is a special treat. Lettuce, swiss chard, beets, carrots, and kale are waiting for you.
It takes some planning, but you can grow a winter garden no matter where you are located. Cold weather may be around the corner, and pumpkin spice may be all the rage, yet we’re still planting, and we hope you will, too. Don’t worry if all you’ve ever had is a summer garden. We are happy to introduce you to the joys of winter vegetable gardening!
What is a winter garden, anyways?
As the name suggests, it means a garden that produces crops in the winter season. This is often confusing to people, though, because even though you are harvesting in winter, the vegetables all need to be started much sooner. Some vegetables, like carrots, must be started in late summer or fall. So, the name winter gardening is a bit misleading. Really, this is all-season gardening, because having fresh vegetables during all the seasons is a wonderful thing. And, there is no need to stop gardening just because it is getting colder outside. Winter gardening requires some adjustment as to what is to grown since not all vegetables are possible, but other than that, the basic gardening methods are the same as summer gardening.
What do you put in a winter garden?
So many crops will grow in the winter with a little extra care. These are some of the vegetable plants we plant every year in our winter garden:
- Lettuce: Leaf and bib only, not head lettuce. Lettuce needs to be harvested as soon as severely cold weather begins. When temperatures go below 30F, the plants will start to die. It is best to harvest it all before this happens! Cold frames and greenhouses don’t usually offer enough protection for these tender vegetable plants either, sadly.
- Kale: This cool-weather loving vegetable often will still grow even when covered with snow. It is a hardy one! The plants get large, though, which can be a problem for smaller cold frame or greenhouse.
- Carrots: Carrots need a lot of time to develop, but the remarkable thing about growing them in winter is that you can just leave them in the ground when they’re ripe. The soil acts as an impromptu cold cellar. Choose smaller varieties so they will have enough time to grow.
- Radishes: A quick cool weather crop, radishes are perfect for the winter garden. There are even varieties of radish named winter radish because
- Beets: Best for climates with mild winters. Beets are super hardy, but if you live in an area with temperatures that don’t go below 30F, definitely grow beets.
- Swiss Chard: Grows incredibly in a cold frame or greenhouse all winter long.
- Spinach: One of the stars of the winter garden, spinach will give you fresh greens through January, then overwinter and start producing again in Spring.
- Bok Choi and other Asian Greens: This delicious stir-fry vegetable is also a great cool-season crop. It won’t grow all winter, but you’ll have it for several months. Cool-weather actually makes bok choi taste better.
How do you make a winter garden?
There is no one way to create a winter garden. It can be in a greenhouse, an arrangement of cold frames, a section in the outdoor garden, or a collection of containers on the front porch. Don’t be limited by space or season. When you make a plan, a winter garden is entirely possible wherever you are.
A greenhouse is a simple structure, separate from the garden, with endless variations. The basic elements are a wooden or plastic frame, glass or plastic see-through walls and roof, and a dirt floor. Of course, they are often much fancier than this. No matter your budget or resources, there is likely a greenhouse you can afford. Many companies sell small greenhouses specifically for space-limited backyards or apartment buildings. The simplest greenhouses are small enough to fit on a balcony or porch. Greenhouses are sometimes heated and have electricity; however, many are not. Greenhouses are great for growing a winter garden with lots of variety. Plants are generally grown in containers and placed on benches or shelves, or grown directly in the soil if the floor is dirt.
An unheated, semi-permanent structure, the hoop house is ideal for growing large amounts of vegetables. It is a high-tunnel with greenhouse-grade plastic sheeting over it and a soil floor. The main difference between greenhouses and hoop houses is their permanent vs. impermanent form and that many greenhouses are heated, while hoop houses are not. Here’s an incredible guide for constructing your own hoop house. Hoop houses work incredibly well in combination with raised beds, as well as placed directly in the garden bed
Cold Frame & Cloches
These two options work the same way as a greenhouse, but they are much smaller. Cold Frames are small-framed structures with windows on top to keep plants warm and also protect them from wind or inclement weather. Most are permanent fixtures in the garden and are used all year for delicate and particular plants. Cloches are portable, removable bell-shaped implements which are placed over a plant to protect it. Cold frames and cloches are excellent for protecting against early or late frosts. Vegetables, like lettuce and greens, can be planted directly into a cold frame and tended right there. Cloches, on the other hand, are moved between plants in the garden to protect as needed. Cold frames are relatively easy to build if you’re interested in a fun, DIY project to increase your winter crop yields.
The simplest method, but also the most time-consuming of the winter garden methods, container gardening can be done by anyone. Since there is no structure in place to keep the plants warm, once the temperature turns cold, the containers need to be brought indoors regularly.
What month should you start a winter garden?
The best month to start a winter garden depends on where you live. The first frost date for your area will be the most significant determining factor for when you start the garden. Some vegetables, like cabbage and root crops, need a lot of time to mature, which means they need to be planted as soon as possible. Other crops, like lettuce and leafy greens, grow quickly.
To figure out which month to start a winter garden in your area, consult your local college extension or gardening club. They’ll know the best time to start based on years of experience.
How to create a winter garden
To create a winter garden successfully, evaluate all the options beforehand, and make a plan. It is unlikely a cold-weather garden will succeed without planning. You are essentially racing against time with many of these winter crops, so make sure you know all there is to know about first frosts, days to maturity, and vegetable needs.
- Figure out your growing season. This won’t be the same for every vegetable as some mature faster than others. However, a basic calculation using the average first frost date for your climate is the first thing to do. The majority of winter plants need planting 6-8 weeks before the first frost. For some climates, this may mean starting in August. For quick-growing plants, starting in late September or early October may be fine.
- Once you know the first frost date, make a spreadsheet of all the vegetables you want to grow. List the vegetable variety, the days to maturity, and ideal growing temperature. Making a plan before planting anything will go a long way towards your success at winter gardening.
- For each vegetable, use the days to maturity and count backward from the first frost date to determine the planting date. For example, Nante carrots take 65 days to reach maturity. If your average first frost is Oct. 28th, the carrots need to be started at least 65 days before that date, around Aug. 25th. Salad lettuce, on the other hand, takes around 45 days to reach maturity. With an average first frost of Oct. 28th, the lettuce needs to be planted around Sept. 14th.
- Do you plan on using a greenhouse, cloches, or hoop house? This will increase the time you have to grow vegetable plants. Or, it may ensure that your winter crops make it to maturity in case there is an early freeze or especially cold weather. Greenhouses and hoop houses have the potential to extend the growing season by 3-4 months. Don’t forget a plan to water the garden during the winter. Hoses freeze, so make sure to plan for this likelihood.
- Start planting! This gets a little tricky, especially when there are still summer crops maturing in the garden. All you need is a plan, though. Start the seeds indoors, then transfer them outside in early or late fall. If you are growing in a greenhouse, they can go straight there. If you’re using cold frames or a hoop house, it’s best to transplant straight into the soil when the seedlings are ready. Ideally, the space is already cleared of any summer crops when the seedlings are ready for their permanent home.
How cold is too cold for a garden?
Most crops in a protected winter garden will withstand short-term freezing temperatures around or below 32F. However, once it starts staying below freezing for an extended period, growth stops. This doesn’t mean all the vegetables die, though. Radishes will overwinter in the ground, as will carrots. And, kale will sustain reasonably well even during deep cold spells. To understand the exact reaches of your winter garden, you’ll likely need to do some experimenting. And, of course, it will vary by year because Mother Nature does her own thing!
Crops never to grow in a winter garden
Some vegetables do not like the cold, no matter how much you coddle them. Never plant tomatoes, squash, corn, or beans — these are not winter plants!