Winter vegetables and greens are a joy to grow because they are tolerant of cold weather and thrive in the spring and fall.
If you think you’re supporting the idea of frugal living with a garden, wait until you start growing and harvesting cold weather vegetables in the off season.
Cold weather vegetables include cole crops like kale, cabbage and broccoli that can be grown successfully year round, even if you don’t have a heated greenhouse.
My experience with cold weather vegetables is limited, but in 2008 we jumped in with both feet.
I have already done some experimentation with lettuce and other greens, and have had great success.
Cold weather vegetables can be grown, or at least harvested in cold weather, so we have an opportunity for a year round harvest.
What better way to save money on groceries?
Thanks to the research and focus of a handful of tireless gardeners, breakthrough gardening methods have been developed for a year round harvest of winter vegetables.
Individuals like Eliot Coleman provide us with insight and experience that will allow us to convert cole crops and other cold weather vegetables into true winter vegetables that allow us to feed ourselves all year long, without necessarily resorting to canning, drying and freezing.
What better news for gardeners? The gardening season never ends!
You can get his book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long, and enjoy harvesting in the winter garden like I do.
In most of the U.S., vegetables can be grown, or at least harvested, in any month of the year without the need for a heated enclosure.
In some of the northern areas, a harvest of winter vegetables will require an enclosure and row covers, but these don’t have to be fancy or expensive.
They can be homemade like mine. And, they are long-term investments in good eating and good health.
As an example of a cold hardy crop, Kale has always been known for its resistance to cold weather. It thrives in cooler weather and can withstand frost like a snowman.
It tastes sweeter after a good frost, and it can even be harvested in the winter if you dig it out from under a cover of snow.
Now, can you imagine how cold hardy this winter vegetable would be if you give it the protection of a simple enclosure?
Crops Suitable for Winter Harvest
So, if you are going to grow and harvest in the winter, what exactly can you grow?
The varieties of winter vegetables are many, but they aren’t going to be things like Tomatoes, Melons, Eggplant and Peppers – plants that love warm weather.
They will be cole crops and other cold weather vegetables that enjoy cooler temperatures and can withstand below freezing weather.
Let me say that again. There are vegetables that can withstand below freezing weather – even weather that dips into the teens and lower.
If they are still with us after a night in the teens, you know these are winter vegetables.
Late fall to early spring crops will include things like:
peas – radishes – kale – Brussels sprouts – cabbage – broccoli – onions – lettuce – beets – turnips – salad greens – Swiss chard – kohlrabi – turnips – collards
These vegetable types aren’t necessarily suited to planting and growing in the winter, but they will allow a harvest in much of the winter months that are considered off season to the normal summer gardener.
I dare say that you probably don’t buy this many different types of produce at the store on a regular basis, so having this sort of variety available in your yard in the middle of the winter should satisfy even the most finicky of vegetable eaters.
Many seed companies publish a fall catalog just for those who want to grow “off-season.”
Territorial Seed Company has a fall/winter catalog, and it features 24 pages of cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc.), root crops, alliums (onions and garlic), lettuce, European greens, Oriental vegetables and spinach that are all suitable to cool and cold weather gardening.
It’s not like we don’t have a wide variety to choose from when it comes to winter vegetables.
Enclosures and Row Covers
A simple enclosure of some sort is necessary to stretch the season by capturing heat from the earth and sun to warm things up during the day to promote a kinder and gentler environment for winter vegetables.
Cold frames, row covers and hoop structures can be used in the garden. If used to create a “greenhouse within a greenhouse” they promote an even more sheltered environment.
As an example, on March 27, 2008 we transplanted 3 types of lettuce, along with endive, arugula, snow peas, snap peas and vit (corn salad).
That is a little over 2 months ahead of the time we normally could transplant into the unprotected garden.
The idea was to get a head start on the cooler weather crops, even though our greenhouse is leaky, it has little ability to retain heat, and it only has a single layer of glazing.
Since our planting beds were not set up for row covers, we used quart and gallon glass jars to provide a “greenhouse within a greenhouse” for the little transplants. Temperatures dipped into the teens and single digits a few times.
The coldest weather nipped some of the lettuces and greens, but most of them survived just fine.
The early plantings provided a good head start, and one month later we were harvesting our first salads.
Nine weeks later, we are still harvesting enough greens for about 8 generous salads a week.
Our experience suggests that we need to plant at least twice the number of lettuce plants to provide a nice salad every day.
This year we will plant a nice assortment of lettuce and greens in the fall that should allow us to harvest winter vegetables from the greenhouses.
With the aid of row covers and active solar heating during the day, we should be able to apply our early spring experience to the late fall and winter harvest with even greater success.
We aren’t interested in fighting Mother Nature, but we do want to make full use of our greenhouses to provide winter vegetables during the colder months when they would normally sit idle.
Think of it as asset management.
We have an asset, and it can either work for us, or sit idle and be worthless for half the year. We’re making it work for us.
Our active solar heating in the greenhouses will also help us push the limits a bit for some of the cold sensitive plants in hopes of stretching the harvest time for some cultivars.
We might add a little heat occasionally, but we aren’t going to try to grow summer vegetables in the winter.
That is too much like work.
If our experience this spring is any indication, we will expect growth in the late summer and fall, and harvest of winter vegetables in the short days of December through March.
Watering in the Winter
Water will be stopped when we start to get consistently cold temperatures. This should help avoid killing the vegetables when a hard freeze sets in.
It is my understanding that water in plant cells freezes and ruptures the cells with a hard frost.
Backing off on the water late in the fall should avoid this problem.
This is the same advice I was given for some of my trees that are heavy drinkers – back off on the water in the fall and they will survive the winter with less damage to external branches.
If your winter vegetables have moisture from the fall, but no added moisture during the winter, they most likely will last much longer even in temperatures well below freezing.
My lettuce plants survived temperatures of about 12 degrees, and didn’t show any signs of problems.
They like it warmer, but are capable of making it through nights that would kill most other plants.
We only harvested in the warmth of the day this spring, and we had great results.
I understand that if you don’t allow the plants to warm up for a while, you might be harvesting mush in the middle of the winter. Several hours above freezing is necessary for the plants to recover from the deep freeze.
I’ll let you know what I add to my “learn by doing” database this winter.
My experience with broccoli and kale show their affinity for cold weather.
I planted both of these cold weather vegetables in the spring and they began to grow rather well in the cooler weather and lengthening daylight. Once the hot days of summer set in, they slowed their growth to a crawl.
They were in a kind of suspended state waiting for cooler weather.
When the summer vegetables were giving us their last fruits and showing signs of stress because of the consistently cooler days and nights, the broccoli and kale started growing again as if someone had turned on a switch.
How nice it was to see something in the garden that appreciated cooler weather.
Oddly enough, these and other winter vegetables enjoy cooler weather and can tolerate frost out in the open.
My plan this year is to plant these crops during the fall inside the protection of the greenhouse.
They should stay in an environment that is to their liking for most of the fall, winter and spring, and provide us with food during the winter when other summer crops are long gone.
Over Wintering Root Crops
Another thing you can do to provide food in the winter is identify root crops that can over-winter or at least store better when left in the ground as winter sets in.
Varieties like onions, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas can be left in the ground longer and harvested throughout the winter by digging them up. Some winter vegetables are meant to winter over just fine for a spring harvest.
One spring while rototilling the garden, I hit upon a couple of onions that hadn’t been uncovered during the harvest of the previous year.
They popped up onto the soil as the blades of the rototiller dug them up.
I examined them and found them to be in excellent shape. This year I’ll plant onions intentionally for a spring harvest.
If you have an enclosure, you’ll do even better at keeping an underground harvest ready to eat.
Your crops will have the protection from extreme cold and wind, and most importantly, you’ll have a protected area in which to harvest.
It is no fun digging out in the garden when the wind is blowing snow all around you.
So, with a wide range of root crops and above ground crops that can be grown and harvested in cool and cold weather, it seems like we are in good shape to have fresh vegetables in the winter to supplement the canned, dried and frozen vegetable varieties that can only be grown in the summer.
If you are interested in building a greenhouse type structure for growing winter vegetables, I can show you how. I have built three.
My Experience with Winter Vegetables
With some seeds for winter vegetables planted in greenhouse #1 in the fall of 2008, I allowed winter to set in like it normally does.
My only precaution was to use a row cover over the turnips, bok choy, chives, lettuce and Swiss chard that I had designated as the “guinea pigs”.
Each of the crops were planted in separate raised beds and covered by the same single layer row cover made of 6 mil poly.
The raised beds were steel half-drums, so they gain energy readily, but also readily give it up. Not the best scenario for growing winter vegetables.
Winter vegetables will do better if they are in ground level beds so they enjoy the captured warmth in the soil.
So, it is reasonable to extrapolate from my experience that even better results will be obtained by having winter vegetables in standard ground level beds, and using double row covers.
And, I should note that greenhouse #1 still had it’s summer vents open on the top, so there was nothing to hold heat in, and the snow piled up on and around the row cover inside.
“Okay, enough already about the beds and row covers. I want to know what happened to your ‘guinea pig’ vegetables?”
I understand your enthusiasm, so I’ll get right with it. Here is the upshot of the experiment as of early December, 2008; everything survived just fine even after 36 hours at below zero temperatures.
I’m talking not just below freezing (32F), but below zero – well below zero. Our lowest temperature was -14F.
Some of the plants looked like they took a little beating, but when temperatures came back above freezing for a day, I harvested the bok choy and some of the turnips and they looked just fine.
The ground around the plants was frozen solid, but the plants looked just fine.
That is simply an impressive performance by winter vegetables. There is no other way to look at it.
I should note that my lettuce seedlings were still trying to grow under their small poly covering.
I was truly amazed and would have been highly skeptical of anyone claiming something similar if I hadn’t witnessed (and participated in) it myself.
With results like this, we know that year round vegetable gardening is entirely possible here in (barely) zone 5.
Just think of the results if we were to use double row covers and cold frames under row covers within the greenhouse?
For information from an expert in winter gardening and construction of enclosures, pick up Eliot Coleman’s book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Mr. Coleman has done an excellent job of stretching the normal growing season in both directions until there is no distinct season for vegetables – all year long vegetables are a possibility.
His book documents many ways to grow and harvest winter vegetables in detail.
If you are serious about having a harvest of winter vegetables, this book is highly recommended.
It is well written and illustrated, and provides good foundation for the advice it offers.
Give you frugal living program a boost by enjoying a fresh harvest of vegetables year round.