As the air turns crisp and days get shorter, everyone turns their attention to the harvest. I love this time of year. I love to see the bounty from spring’s planting come full circle, whether it be in the garden or field.
However, it can also be a time to think of planting again. I know most gardens, including mine, look barren about this time of year, but there is a ton of produce that can not only be grown during the winter, but actually thrives during the cold months. As some crops are living out their last days, others are waiting to begin growth.
For areas where the ground doesn’t completely freeze, winter is a great time to plant right in the garden. For those of us who live further north, where the ground does completely freeze, we just have to be a little more creative.
Winter gardens are a little different from those grown in the warm months, and there are some definite advantages. For one thing, plants are dormant during winter, which means that they are not actively growing. Being in “sleeping” mode means that they suffer less transplant shock when planted now than if they were “awake” and actively growing.
Plants in the dormant state require significantly less water than when they are in the active growth state during spring, summer, or fall. There also tends to be more moisture in the forms of both rain and snow during the winter months than in the other three seasons. Watering is still crucial, just not as much is needed.
Bugs and plant diseases are not active in cold weather — this is a big one for me. Imagine gardening without the hassle of fighting pests. You get a reprieve from insects eating the produce before you have a chance, or black spots or mildew appearing from seemingly nowhere.
Winter planting gives plants a chance to acclimate to their new homes and start early root growth in the spring before the summer heat arrives. Woody plants in particular, like trees and shrubs, respond well to fall and winter planting. Amanda Campbell, manager of Display Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, explains “because plants are already dormant when they go into the ground, at the first onset of spring — many times imperceptible to people, but picked up by trees waiting for the right signals — they begin root growth. Beginning this growth early in spring gives them a good, solid start going into spring and summer. The soil around them has settled from planting and, if you mulch in the fall, this helps regulate soil temperature and moisture.”
Winter planting and fall mulching puts plants planted in winter a step ahead when spring comes. Smaller perennials can also be fall/winter-planted, but they sometimes struggle just a bit more than larger ones, as they tend not to be large in size or rooted quite as well as trees and shrubs. They take a little more TLC.
Now, for those of us who live in the northern climates where the grounds freeze during winter, it takes a little more creativity to be a winter gardener. However, by no means is it impossible. Plants need to be insulated against the cold — that is the bottom line. If you have a greenhouse, you should be set to go, but for the rest of us it takes a little ingenuity. You can make a cloche or makeshift greenhouse with old windows, hoops of PVC pipe with greenhouse plastic strung over them, or even old milk jugs cut open to slide over growing plants to protect them from the cold.
You will have a tough time growing delicate summer crops like corn, thin-skinned squash, tomatoes, strawberries, and the like without a commercial greenhouse and being willing to spend a great deal of money on heating and lighting to force your garden to grow. However, there are some crops that are partial to the colder months. Here are just a few:
KALE: Kale has recently gained a reputation for being trendy and has probably reached its social saturation point, but give it another shot. It is rich in vitamins and minerals and makes a robust winter crop, thriving in a variety of conditions. There are many different varieties like Redbor kale, kamome red kale, and others that walk a thin line between edible and ornamental so you can have splashes of color in your garden and also a healthy snack.
KOHLRABI: This plant will give you flavorful leaves and a nice root to boot. It likes cold weather and tends to mature rapidly. Once that root is large enough, you can pickle it, use it in stir fries, eat it raw on salads, and a lot more. While you're at it, don’t overlook kohlrabi’s cousin — the winter radish — to add a little flair to your winter salads. I even peeled some of these delicacies last year, cooked them until tender, and then sliced, rolled in flour, and fried them in olive oil for a different kind of treat.
WINTER LETTUCE: Lettuce can be grown at almost any time of the year, including winter. For us northerners, this is where we will need a cold frame, greenhouse, or warm area of the house with some sunlight, but it will be so worth it to have fresh, crisp greens at your fingertips. This is especially appealing to me since I got not one nibble of lettuce this year due to the deer dining first on the tasty morsels. I just dare them to try and get my winter crop of lettuce!
SPINACH and ORACH: These related greens taste great and love winter weather. Orach is a rich maroon color, so it will provide a colorful splash in your winter garden, right beside that red kale that you planted! Like lettuce, they can be harvested a few leaves at a time to keep the plant producing for weeks.
POTATOES: I was so proud of my potato crop this year, like every year; I have had a good crop that keeps me well supplied during the winter. However, I know it is not my prowess in the garden that produced such a good crop, because potatoes are not fussy. You can toss them in a five gallon bucket with soil or straw as a growing medium and keep them producing all winter. When it gets cold and the weather is bad, just move them indoors or to a sheltered area on the porch.
HERBS: Don’t forget your herbs. Thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon, oregano, and chives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to varieties that you can grow right on your windowsill. How nice to have greenery growing during the dreary winter months, and they add fresh zing to winter soups and casseroles!
Winter gardening lets you keep your green thumb going year-round. It doesn’t take much to provide enough shelter for plants to thrive in your winter garden. Who says you can’t have fresh produce right at home all year long?