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 weather using protective covers. This same approach can also work with insulated containers on a sunny apartment balcony.
I’ve been experimenting with winter vegetable gardening for a few years now, inspired first by Eliot Coleman’s books [see them on Amazon] and then by 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 I’m in zone 6 in Ontario, Canada. The approach is the same in all the cold climate zones.
I recommend getting Niki’s book for complete details, 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.
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.
By planting in the late summer and early fall, you’ll have vegetables for ongoing winter harvesting as well as getting a huge head start in the early spring.
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 which I cover with tarps to keep warmth in. 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 for transplanting 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.
A few mishaps
- Last year I had the unusual situation of a 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.
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.
But Wait! There’s More!…