One-Block Feast: Guide to Winter Garden Vegetables

Find out which seeds to plant this frosty season with Sunset Magazine’s simple guide to winter garden vegetables, and you can enjoy the decadence of crunchy, vitamin-rich greens during the dead of winter.

Winter Garden Vegetables

The leafy greens and succulent cruciferous vegetables we raised for our winter menu grow best when air temperatures are cool.

Photo By Thomas J. Story (c) 2011

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Based on the James-Beard-Award-winning One-Block Diet, The One-Block Feast (Ten Speed Press, 2011) is the ultimate guide to eating local. Complete with seasonal garden plans, menus, 100 recipes and 15 food projects, this guide explains how to raise and produce everything needed for totally made-from-scratch meals, all from your own backyard. The following excerpt on winter garden vegetables is taken from “Winter.” 

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The One-Block Feast.

Guide to Winter Garden Vegetables

The leafy greens and succulent cruciferous vegetables we raised for our winter menu grow best when air temperatures are cool. Yet they thrive in sunny locations (at least 6 hours of sun per day). Arugula is easy to grow from seeds, while other crops, including lettuce, yield plentifully from nursery plants. If you can, avoid planting in any “frost pockets”—low areas that can get frost earlier than other parts of your garden. Use our winter garden plan

as a tool to help you lay out your winter garden vegetables.


Arugula or rocket (roquette in French) has tender, deep green leaves that add a peppery bite to salads. Crops come fast: You can pick baby leaves in as little as 3 weeks. To prolong the harvest, sow in succession every 3 weeks.

Best Site: An open, sunny spot and well-drained soil.

Days to Harvest: 35 days from seed.

Planting and Care: Sow seeds during cool weather in ground that has been raked or hoed clean of weeds and clods. You can either broadcast (scatter) the seeds or sow thinly in rows, and cover lightly with 1/4 inch of soil. Water the plot lightly and often to bring up the seedlings, then regularly (once a week or so) as they grow. To speed them up, apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer after the first unformed leaves appear. Thin seedlings to about 6 inches apart (the thinnings are great in salads). Arugula also thrives in pots at least 6 inches deep and 14 inches wide.

How to Harvest: Pick the leaves as needed once plants are larger.

Seed Source: Burpee 

Broccoli Rabe 

Broccoli rabe, also called broccoli raab or rapini, is a choice cool-season crop to grow alongside cabbage and carrots. It resembles broccoli, but instead of producing one giant head, it grows many longer, smaller budding stalks that you can selectively harvest all winter and spring. The plant grows 12 to 15 inches tall, and usually re-sprouts from the stalks until hot weather settles in.

Best Site: Full sun, though it can tolerate some shade, and well-drained soil. Prefers cool weather.

Days to Harvest: 60 days from seeds.

Planting and Care: Plant in well-composted soil in early fall, sowing seeds 2 inches apart in rows 6 to 8 inches apart. When seedlings are 3 to 4 inches tall, thin them to 6 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist.

How to Harvest: Clip stalks when buds appear, or allow a few of their yellow flowers to bloom for splashes of garden color (the blooms are edible, too). Plants will keep shooting out new buds for an extended yield.

Seed Source: (search under “broccoli raab”) Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds 

Broccoli Romanesco ‘Veronica’ 

This variety’s round heads, made up of chartreuse florets that spiral into little peaks, make it look like cauliflower from another planet. It has a texture and flavor similar to mild, sweet cauliflower, too. The florets turn a slightly deeper, more olive green when cooked, and can also be eaten raw as whole florets (good with dips) or sliced in salads.

Best Site: Grow it in loamy soil that’s been well amended with compost, and make sure it gets full sun (though it can tolerate some shade). Broccoli Romanesco prefers cool weather.

Days to Harvest: 77 days from seed.

Planting and Care: In mild climates, plant in late summer or early fall for a winter harvest. (Plants develop the best heads when they mature in cool weather; in heat, the flower buds open prematurely.) Start seeds in flats or small pots indoors 6 weeks before transplanting into the garden. Before planting in the garden, work some well-aged compost and a granular complete fertilizer into the soil. Space the plants 18 to 24 inches apart, keep the soil evenly moist, and cover the seedlings with floating row covers (available at nurseries) until they’re big and leafy enough to withstand cabbage worms.

How to Harvest: For the best quality, harvest the heads when they are firm and tight. As they get older, they open up and lose their crunch.

Seed Source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds 

Cabbage, Savoy ‘Alcosa’

This curly-leaved Savoy cabbage forms tight heads that are ideal for closely spaced planting. Also, its leaves are dense, crinkled, and colorful—blue-green outside, lighter green to creamy white inside—and pretty in garden beds with other greens. We love this cabbage in stir-fries, because it retains its crunch, and in salads. It has an exceptionally mild, sweet flavor.

Best Site: Full sun in mild coastal areas, part shade in hot-summer interiors, and loose, fast-draining soil enriched with compost.

Days to Harvest: 72 days from seed.

Planting and Care: Time your planting so heads will mature in cooler weather before or after hot summer months. We started our plants from seeds, sowing them in flats in our greenhouse 4 weeks before planting the seedlings outdoors in garden beds in September. Space the seedlings 24 to 30 inches apart. Water the plants often enough to ensure they never wilt, and give them frequent light feedings of dilute liquid fish emulsion (follow package directions).

How to Harvest: When the heads feel firm and look well formed, cut them off at the base with pruners or loppers. The plants can take light frost, which sweetens their flavor, but heavy freezes can knock them down.

Seed Source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds 

Cauliflower ‘Cassius’ 

We grew this variety because it produces round, creamy white heads 7 to 8 inches across—the perfect size for a compact kitchen garden. Some varieties need to have their leaves tied together over the heads to keep the sun from discoloring them, but ‘Cassius’ is a self-blanching variety, so it didn’t need all that fussing. Its flavor is mellow and sweet.

Best Site: Full sun and well-drained soil.

Days to Harvest: 65 to 75 days from seed.

Planting and Care: Start seeds in flats or small pots indoors 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting into a garden bed that has been well amended with compost. Space seedlings 18 to 24 inches apart. Keep soil moist until seedlings get growing, then water deeply and regularly, especially in dry weather. Feed once or twice with complete fertilizer before heads start to form.

How to Harvest: Use a sharp knife to slice the entire head from the mature stem. It’s a bit of a dance to know when cauliflower is ready to harvest. The head should be firm and fully formed; harvest it before the curd (the white part) separates into flowers (check it regularly). Make the cut beneath the top set of leaves.

Seed Source: Territorial Seed Company 

Kale, Curly-Leafed and Tuscan 

Rich and nutrient-packed (high in vitamins A and C), kale is indispensable for winter soups and stews. We grew two varieties: ‘Winterbor’, whose curly-edged, blue-green leaves form low rosettes that stretch out to 2 feet, and ‘Nero di Toscana’, a Tuscan heirloom kale whose strappy, dark green leaves form statuesque, upright plants that reach 3 feet. (Tuscan kale is also often labeled lacinato or dinosaur kale.) Both kale types are ornamental and cold-hardy and add texture and color to the winter garden. Light frost sweetens their flavors.

Best Site: Full sun or light shade in mild climates, part shade in hotter inland areas.

Days to Harvest: 55 to 65 days for ‘Winterbor’ and 60 days for ‘Nero di Toscana’ from seed.

Planting and Care: Plant in September for a winter crop. Till the soil and mix in compost or aged manure before planting. Sow seeds in place and thin seedlings to 24 to 36 inches apart. Or, set out nursery seedlings at the same spacing. Keep the soil moist during the growing season.

How to Harvest: Remove leaves from the outside of the clusters as needed, or harvest the entire plant by pulling it up and cutting off the base.

Seed Source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds 

Lettuce, Red Butterhead

Lettuce is one of the most satisfying vegetables you can grow: It’s fast and easy from seed as long as you plant it at the right time of year (fall or spring in mild climates). We chose ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ (‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’), a French heirloom variety whose loosely cupped green leaves are tinged with shades of ruby, rose-pink, and bronze.

Best Site: A sunny spot in cool areas, part shade where it is hot, and loose, well-drained soil.

Days to Harvest: 50 to 60 days from seed.

Planting and Care: Sow seeds about 4 inches apart in well-prepared soil, then barely cover the seeds with about 1/4 inch of soil. Thin seedlings to 12 inches apart. Spray the seedbed with water regularly until the seeds germinate, then water regularly to keep the soil moist. Feed once or twice during the growing season with dilute liquid fish emulsion.

How to Harvest: Pick leaves any time from the seedling (thinning) size on. Harvest after loose heads form.

Seed Source: The Cook’s Garden, and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds 

Mustard ‘Green Wave’ 

Mustard comes in different colors and textures, but we like ‘Green Wave’ for its lime-green hue, ruffled edges, and pungent, peppery flavor. The plant looked so good in the garden that we neglected to harvest it and ended up with very big (and very spicy) leaves. Luckily, they were perfect when braised with other winter greens.

Best Site: Full sun and well-drained soil.

Days to Harvest: 50 days from seed.

Planting and Care: We planted mustard in October for our winter dinner. You can also plant in early spring or late summer; the key is to avoid exposing the plants to too much heat, which causes premature bolting (setting of seed). Start seeds indoors or plant them directly in well-fertilized soil 1/2 inch deep, eventually thinning the seedlings to 6 to 12 inches apart. Water regularly, and feed with a complete fertilizer every 2 to 3 weeks.

How to Harvest: Pick outer leaves as needed, or let the plant reach about 6 inches tall, then snip it down to an inch above the soil (new leaves can shoot up again from the base).

Seed Source: Territorial Seed Company 

Swiss chard 

See the Fall Gardening Guide.

Tangerine ‘Dancy’ 

‘Dancy’ is the standard variety that appears in markets before Christmas: smallish and seedy, but with excellent, complex fl avor. We picked from a tree that has been at Sunset for decades. Like all tangerines, it’s a member of the mandarin family.

Best Site: Full sun and deep, fast-draining soil.

Days to Harvest: Plants start bearing fruits in early winter.

Planting and Care: Plant after spring frost but before summer heat. Dig in a 4- to 6-inch layer of compost before planting, then dig a hole twice as wide as the root-ball and mix a granular, controlled-release general-purpose fertilizer into the backfill. Or, plant in large containers (at least 18 inches in diameter) in fast-draining potting mix. Mulch with compost. Water established trees every other week, soaking the soil thoroughly. Feed several times during the growing season with a fertilizer formulated for citrus (follow package directions).

How to Harvest: Citrus fruits ripen only on the tree. Pluck one and taste for ripeness.

Plant Source: Shop nurseries, or Four Winds Growers 

More One-Block Feast Winter Homesteading Ideas:

How to Make Mead, the Honey Wine
How to Make Escargot From Your Own Garden Snails
How to Make Salt From Local Seawater
15 Healthy Winter Recipes
Preparing a Local Winter Feast 

More seasonal gardening plans: 

One-Block Feast: Spring Garden Plan
One-Block Feast: Fall Gardening Guide 

Reprinted with permission from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True & the staff of Sunset Magazine, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The One-Block Feast.