The Cold-Weather Garden

kale

Think gardening and planting is over once the cold weather hits, and you’re stuck without a fresh vegetable for months? Think again, and consider the cold-weather garden.

Last year, we had some extra rows graciously tilled by a homesteading friend of ours that we never used for summer plants, so we tried our hand at planting some winter-hardy crops. Some flourished (hello, collards and kale and mustard greens, and those beautiful parsnip lifesavers!), while others were overtaken by aphids or just didn’t flourish (alas, Brussels sprouts and green leaf cabbage).

Regardless, we were absolutely thrilled to have fresh veggies in our garden for the leaner winter months to supplement pickled and preserved foods, as well as lower our grocery budget for fresh produce. We kept our focus on what succeeded last year – kale, collards, parsnips, and mustard greens – while adding some new and interesting items for fun – red carrots and black radishes, as well as arugula before the real frost hits.

Depending on your own first frost date, as well as your hardiness zone (that is, the average high and low temperatures for each season, which determines what you can and can’t grow throughout the year), you can still plant a winter garden, as well as start some tasties that will be ready come spring or summer of next year.

A bountiful winter harvest!

Why grow a winter garden, you ask? Why do you want to be out in the cold tending to plants?

  1. You have access to your own fresh produce all winter, all at the monetary cost of seeds and possible soil amendments. There is nothing so excellent as remembering that you have fresh greens or root vegetables in the backyard that you can cook for dinner, rather than relying on the same canned or frozen goods yet again.
  2. Weeds slowwwwww down in the winter. They’re essentially nonexistent, so the actual work, once the plants are established, is at a minimum. Same goes for a lot of the critters that like to munch on your crops in the warmer months.
  3. Since cold-hardy plants grow more slowly than summer plants, they tend to need less water. I can count the number of times I watered our crops last winter on one hand, and those waterings require less water overall.
  4. The winter garden gets you outside. I don’t like to be stuck inside for days at a time, and the garden gives me no excuses to do so. To be fair, our winters are comparatively mild if you’re thinking of a more northern or Canadian winter. But as long as it’s not actually dangerous to be outside, get yourself outside in the cold – you’ll be glad you did, and you can always come back in for a nice cup of cider or cocoa.

Now, of course, there are things to consider for a successful winter garden:

  1. While there may be fewer pests, this doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. Slugs and aphids thrive in the winter, since their predators don’t come back until the warmer months. Thankfully, because the weeds and other pests are under control, you can focus your efforts on ridding your plants of these pests.
  2. Seriously, check your hardiness zone and frost dates. If you plant too early or too late, it won’t grow or thrive. If you plant something that won’t survive your insane winter, or something that needs cold to thrive during your mild months, it won’t grow or thrive. You can use plant starts or seeds, depending on when you’re starting (at this point, starts may be more successful). Check your harvest lengths, too – some plants won’t be ready until the spring or summer, despite planting them in the fall or winter.
  3. Try not to plant the same items in the same spot from the summer, or year before. (If at all possible, try to use a bed or two that wasn’t used at all for planting for at least a season or two.) This goes for plant families, too, like brassicas, so don’t try planting cabbages where you had broccoli during the spring and summer. Why? Firstly, the plants will have depleted nutrients from the soil necessary for thriving – this is why good farmers rotate crops as a best practice. Secondly, any parasites, fungi, or other issues that may have plagued your plants (or may now be in the soil) would continue to plague your winter plants.
  4. You may need to amend your soil with compost, especially if anything was planted there before. See above.
The aphids and slugs ate more cabbages and Brussels sprouts than we did. Sigh.

Now, what can you plant in your winter garden? Once again, this depends on your hardiness zone, as well as your personal preferences and space. Different plants also have different cold tolerances, so some will give you veggies throughout the winter, while others will quit when the ground hard freezes (a consistent 32 degrees F or below), while still others need the cold ground to germinate in order to come back in the spring. Whew!

Here are some suggestions regardless, and I focus on what you can plant now (or a month ago) and eat during the cold months here:

  1. Brassicas and leafy greens. Some cold-hardy varieties (that is, plants that will survive hard freezes above the teens) include collards, mustard greens, cabbages, spinach, and kale. Items like kale and collards actually thrive in cold months, tend to be sweeter after the first frost, and actually turn bitter when the sun comes back for the summer. Asian varieties of cabbages (think bok choi and the like), as well as lettuces and arugula, will tolerate light frosts, but will not survive the whole winter through outside. However, you can plant items under cloches, as well as unheated greenhouses, for winter tolerance, as well.
  2. Root vegetables. Think carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, beets, and the like. Depending on your winter, some will thrive all winter (our parsnips lasted until the summer!), while others will only thrive until January or so.
  3. Flowers. Not really part of a vegetable garden, but still great to have around during those cold months nonetheless. I’m always a fan of the pansy, and there are other varieties of winter-hardy flowers, as well. Check for native plants and hardiness.

Our crops are a bit more slow-growing this year (minus the mustard greens, which are thriving currently), so send the good vibes this way so we have tastiness throughout the winter. Got any winter crops you’re a fan of growing? Any tips for winter gardens? Leave them in the comments!

As always, happy homesteading, y’all!

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