Grow winter kale, broccoli, spinach, lettuces, mesclun mix, carrots, and more!
I feel like this is one of the best kept secrets in gardening: you really can grow vegetables year round in cold climates.
You just have to know what to plant when and devise ways to protect the plants from worst of the damp, cold weather.
For ideas for protective crop covers, also see 7 DIY Season Extenders.
Gardening in Canada
I live in Ontario, Canada (zone 6ish), and I’ve been experimenting with winter vegetable gardening for a few years now.
I first came across the idea reading Eliot Coleman’s books [see them on Amazon] but it didn’t really seem feasible until I read The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live by Niki Jabbour. Niki is in zone 5 in Nova Scotia, Canada and shows a basic approach that is suitable for all the cold climate zones.
And how cool would it be to have a cold frame full of greens while the snow is piling up outside?
I recommend getting Niki’s book for complete details (far more than I could ever provide here), but I will give you an overview here of my adapted approach so you can see what’s involved. There is a little catch to this, as you’ll see below.
How to protect the plants
Cool-loving vegetables (like many other plants) can survive cold temperatures so long as they don’t actually freeze.
There are several different things you can use to prevent freezing including:
- Raised beds with lids
- Frost cloths
- or a combination of these things
If growing in containers, find something to insulate them with such as old comforters or straw. You just don’t want the soil to freeze. The container itself (or plastic sheets) will prevent wind burn and freezing.
During the coldest weather, the plants won’t actually grow, but simply remain dormant until the temperatures warm up, sunlight increases, and growth can resume.
Where I live, we have a few warm spells each winter and that’s the time to open up the lids and let the air circulate and sun shine in. Sometimes the soil will be dry and require watering as well.
By planting a winter vegetable garden in the late summer and early fall, the vegetables have time to get established (tender roots and shoots will freeze, older ones will not) and you’ll have lots of food to harvest throughout the winter and into spring.
The bonus is, many cold-loving veggies taste better and sweeter with exposure to cooler temperatures.
I adapt my wooden raised beds for winter use. They are approximately two feet high (to allow for the height of the kale and broccoli) and I have screened lids (to keep summer pests out) which I cover with tarps in the winter. The raised beds also gain some heat from the brick walls of my house (radiant heat) and facing the sun.
What & When To Grow
Winter is the time to grow cool and cold-loving vegetables you love to eat. I’ve had success with broccoli, kale, mesclun mix (an assortment of salad greens including leaf lettuces, mache, arugula, mustard, spinach…), Brussels sprouts, parsley, chives, and root vegetables including radishes, Swiss chard, and carrots. This is not the time for heat-loving plants like tomatoes or peppers.
You want the plants to be well-established in their beds before the bitter cold (and damp) sets in. Protective housing will prevent them from freezing (to death). Snow is not actually the most destructive element: it’s icing up that can kill the plants.
I am sure this varies by gardener, but here’s my planting schedule:
- As summer crops finish up, I clean up the beds, amend the soil with compost, and prepare for winter vegetables.
- I start the slow growers like kale and broccoli indoors during August under the indoor grow lights and transplant them into the raised beds in October.
- I start the carrots and radishes outdoors in August.
- The salad greens are sown directly into the soil in September. I also toss in more seeds throughout the winter months.
Here’s The Catch
You have to pay attention. If you’re used to 3-season gardening from spring to fall, you’re used to taking the winters off. But with winter vegetable gardening, you need to watch the weather and adjust things accordingly.
- On warm days, when it’s dry and the temperatures are above freezing (0C /32F and higher), I open up the lids on my raised beds to let more sun and air in. By late afternoon, it’s often time to close the lids again.
- On damp, freezing days, I keep everything tucked in nice and snug.
- Also, the crops may need occassional watering. If you shut off your outdoor water lines in the winter, have a plan for how you will bring water to your cold frames or polytunnels.
A few mishaps
- A few years ago, I had the unusual situation of a super warm mid-winter warm spell. My raised beds heated up so much that the cabbage moths emerged and started eating my plants!
- I also (stupidly) positioned some of the beds right near the house roof overhang, and during a quick thaw, the melting snow poured down around the raised beds and flooded them. So yes, like any time of year, you need to pay attention.
But, other than keeping an eye on things, and coming out to select dinner greens, and occassional watering, it’s pretty low maintenance. And there’s something incredibly cheerful about defying winter with these lush, green plants!
Try It Yourself
It’s definitely a learning curve (and adds a new set of winter tasks) to become a winter vegetable grower, but once you taste the plants grown this way, there’s no turning back: these fresh, local veggies are sweet and delicious.
I hope you’ll give it a try.
Here’s Niki’s book if you’re interested:
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