Winter is always a challenging season for home gardeners. Many choose to sit out the growing season for fear of losing their crops to frost damage. However, if you experience mild winters, you can still have a productive growing season in winter as long as you take proper care of your crops. There are various techniques to keep your plants alive through winter helping to ensure a bountiful harvest by the end of the season.
Follow these tips to give yourself the best chance at an abundant and healthy winter crop.
Water Plants at the Right Time
Be cautious with watering during winter. Choose a warm day for watering your plants and make sure the soil isn’t frozen. The temperature shouldn’t be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you oversaturate your crops when the temperature is too low, it might result in a frost heave that damages plant roots.
As a rule, soak your garden a day or two before the frost arrives. This helps keep your plants hydrated and moist soil retains temperature better than dry soil, reducing the chance of your garden soil from freezing. A full-coverage, ground-level watering system, such as the Garden Grid™ watering system, made by Garden In Minutes, the company I co-founded, is an ideal irrigation solution, especially for winter gardening.
Be careful not to overwater your garden, especially with the expected frost arriving so soon. Soggy soil can suffocate your plants and cause root rot, causing the leaves to wilt.
Mid-day is normally a good time for watering crops since the temperature is higher. Doing so also gives the water enough time to soak before the soil could freeze at night. When the temperature is high enough, you can lightly water your plants during the early evening hours. This will help raise humidity levels and reduce frost damage.
Covering is the most popular way to guard against frost. This technique protects crops from freezing temperatures and cold breezes, helping them retain heat and preventing frost damage.
There are various covering methods to consider, depending on the crops you’re growing and the design of your garden. Here are some of the common options.
Mulching is the simplest way to cover your plants. It locks in moisture in the soil during cold weather, which helps the roots retain heat. Loosely piled leaves, straw, hay, and grass clippings are some of the popular insulating mulch materials. A light layer of snow also acts as effective mulch since it acts as an insulator on top of soil.
When using mulch, keep the depth at around two to three inches. Remember to place mulch around the base of the plants to insulate the roots and soil.
However, not all plants tolerate heavy mulching. These need a structure for cover, such as cold frames or floating row covers.
Floating Row Covers
Floating row covers are among the cheapest and easiest options for winter gardening. They’re made from a translucent, lightweight material that creates a tunnel-like cover over row gardens. They’re often made from plastic sheeting or garden fabric. The material helps warm the soil during daylight hours and provides protection from frost. Here’s a quick explainer video on how to make a simple garden row cover yourself.
You can use floating row covers to extend the season for fall plants until mid-winter, as long as you choose hardy crops. These covers can also be used to jumpstart your spring planting season. They shelter young, tender plants, shielding them from freezing temperatures.
Cold frames are transparent boxes with no bottom, so you can place them over your crops. The top of the box is often made of plastic to let sunlight in, while the sides are made from a sturdy material like wood or plastic.
Just like row covers, cold frames protect crops from freezing temperatures. The difference is that cold frames have an opening top, so they’re more convenient to use. Also, they’re mostly used for square beds or raised gardens. Most varieties of lettuce thrive under a cold frame.
Choose the Right Crops
Finally, you have to grow the right crops. Pick hardy crops that tolerate frosts and freezes, especially if you live in an area that gets harsh winters.
Below are some hardy vegetables that can survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carrots (Root Crops)
Carrots and other root crops grow well in winter. You can grow them in a raised bed or directly in the ground. Just make sure that the soil is deep and rock-free to give the vegetables room to grow.
You can sow your carrots during fall, then plant them repeatedly until winter. The cooler temperatures help the roots mature better, making the carrot even taste sweeter and crisper. However, the carrots generally won’t get bigger after the temperatures drop, but they’ll still hold well in the soil.
A thick blanket of leaves and mulch is enough to protect carrots. Although you can place a cold frame over them to keep the soil healthier.
Cabbages (Hardy Greens)
Cabbage is a popular winter crop due to its frost tolerance. Winter cabbage has the best chances of thriving in the cold season. But with a little protection, you can grow most cabbage varieties in winter.
During winter, cabbages grow better through transplanting. Start them from seeds indoors for the first three months. When transplanting the seedlings, space each cabbage head 12 inches apart to allow them space to grow.
Place a floating row cover over your cabbages to protect them from winter pests and freezing temperatures. Add some compost around the crops if you notice the growth slowing down.
Other hardy greens like kale and lettuce also grow well in winter.
Leeks (Bulbous Vegetables)
Leeks and other bulbous vegetables, such as onion and garlic, are hardy crops. Leeks do the majority of their growing during the winter months, so you can sow them until early spring.
You can grow leeks in raised beds, containers, or directly on the ground. Space them four to six inches apart or more if you want chunky stems. This crop isn’t fussy. It can thrive even with just a snow cover for protection.
Gardening involves plenty of research. Look up the unique care requirements of each crop and the best gardening practices specific to your location or climate. You can also ask local growers or professionals for gardening advice and tips. It takes dedication and hard work to grow a productive vegetable garden, especially in winter, but the reward and challenge is well worth it.