Growing vegetables in winter is a new idea for many gardeners but it is possible cold climates. The two keys to success are choosing the right plants and providing sufficient protective covers like frost cloths or polytunnels to prevent plants from freezing. I’ll walk you through everything you need to get started.
Growing Vegetables in Winter
Fall & Winter Vegetable Gardening
Grow cool-tolerant crops like leafy greens, kale, broccoli, and carrots and more.
• Get all your crops established before freezing weather sets in.
• For winter growing, use frost covers, cold-frames, or poly-tunnels. Snow is a good insulator as well.
• Growth halts as sun dips below 10 hours per day and resumes as it increases in spring.
• Fall & Winter Vegetable Gardening 101
• Fall & Winter Seed Sowing Plan
• 20 Fast-Growing Vegetables for Spring or Fall
Online Seed Shop: Buy Frost Tolerant Vegetable Seeds at Botanical Interests (US shipping)
How It Works
Growing vegetables in cold climates during the winter months is a new idea for many cold climate gardeners. I first learned about it when Niki Jabbour’s Year-Round Vegetable Gardener was published.
Until then, I had assumed you needed a heated greenhouse to keep vegetables safe when it’s cold and snowy outside. But, no. It’s much simpler than that, as you’ll see.
These winter growing tips work in regions that get real winters with freezing temperatures. How cold your area gets will determine what sort of protective cover your crops will need. This may be frost cloths or a polyethylene tunnel or one of the other options listed below.
The secret to successful winter growing involves choosing the right plants along with the right covers.
For plant selections we look for vegetables known to be cool or cold-tolerant. In seed catalogues their names and descriptions often include words like “hardy” and “winter“.
Get Ready in Summer
Keep in mind that winter vegetable growing does not start in winter.
Most seeds should be started in mid to late summer or early fall to allow enough time for the plant to mature before the winter weather sets in. This means sowing in August and September for many of us. Or buying plants if you are lucky enough to have a local nursery that sells vegetables starts at the end of summer.
The plants will grow in late summer and into fall until the weather cools and the days become too short.
We increase the covers and mulch as needed.
In winter, with less than 10 hours of light per day, crops go dormant. The covers provide enough insulation to prevent them from freezing. Once light increases in late winter and early spring, growth resumes.
My favorite part is walking through the snow in the middle of winter and opening the covers to harvest lush, fresh salad greens like spinach, arugula, mustard greens, carrots, a handful of Brussels sprouts—and more—all ready for picking. Once you taste them, you’ll never want off-season vegetables from the grocery store again. Plus, many vegetables like carrots can be sweeter after a frost.
How to Get Started
1Start Your Seeds
- Mid to late summer or early fall
Timing is everything. The goal is to get your seeds started in time so the plants are mature by the time winter sets in.
10 Vegetables to Grow in Winter has a good list of suggestions.
Options include broccoli, kale, carrots, leafy greens including arugula, lettuces, spinach, and more. Parsley, radish, Swiss chard, and cauliflower are also good, hardy candidates.
Your seed catalogue will list them as cool or cold-tolerant and include words like winter and hardy in the names or descriptions. Semi-hardy crops tolerate light frosts (a few degrees below freezing) while hardy ones can take even lower temperatures.
This is not the season for warmth-loving plants like tomatoes. They get their day in the sun in the summer. Anything that has to flower and fruit to produce food will not survive winter growing.
20 Vegetables to Sow Mid-Summer for Fall shares my seed sowing plan. It includes some crops you can harvest before winter and others to keep under covers during the winter. I start the slowest-growers first and go from there.
2Prepare Your Beds
Any garden bed can become a winter vegetable garden if you provide the basics: good soil, adequate light, and room to grow. The same planting guidelines apply for winter as they do in the summer.
Also make sure there is also room to set up whatever covers you will be using.
3Prepare Your Covers
The best cover choice will depend on just how cold and wet it gets in your region. Here in zone 6, I add lids covered in tarps to my raised beds or frost cloths (row covers) with straw on top.
In a colder zone you may need a clear polyethylene cover for added warmth retention.
You may see these listed as “season extenders” in catalogues.
- Frost cloths | Also called floating row covers
- Raised beds with lids
- Cold frames
- Mini-hoop tunnels or polytunnels using polyethylene (6 mil thickness)
These can be made with pvc pipe or conduit or metal or wood frames.
- Greenhouses or a lean-to greenhouse
Or some combination of these.
You can also create extra insulation with:
Organic mulches like leaves, compost, evergreen branches, straw, and snow.
4Plant Your Crops
- Ideally at least 6 to 8 weeks before first frosts.
It’s planting time when your plants are strong enough for transplanting. This means they have several “true” leaves and have grown beyond the seedling stage.
Be sure to harden off (gradually transition to outdoor growing conditions) everything before planting.
Winter Vegetable Garden Care
What to Expect
We plant the winter vegetable garden weeks before first frosts because we need the plants to mature before winter sets in.
After planting, be sure to water your garden as needed and keep up with the weeding.
During the coldest, darkest months, the plants won’t actually grow, but simply remain dormant, safe under their protective covers.
In spring, when temperatures warm up and, more specifically, sunlight increases, growth can resume.
Winter Warm Spells
If you get a warm spell during the winter and the temperature is a few degrees above freezing (32°F / 0°C) or warmer, you may need to temporarily remove or open any covers to prevent your plants from over-heating or drying out.
This may mean removing floating row covers, opening up a polytunnel, or lifting the lids on raised beds during a sunny afternoon.
Whether your winter beds require watering during the winter will depend entirely on your circumstances.
There can be months where the beds stay adequately hydrated but then a hot spell dries the soil.
Be sure to check your soil weekly. If it’s dry an inch below the surface, add water.
This may require hauling water in if you have shut off outdoor faucets for the season.
My Winter Vegetable Garden
This short video was filmed years ago when I first tried winter growing. Watch as I check on my vegetables on a snowy day.
The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. This is the book that got me started with winter growing.
Growing Under Cover by Niki Jabbour shares how to grow under cover all year-round including during the winter.
I hope you’ll give winter growing a try. And maybe you too will become a year-round vegetable gardener.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛