Running a profitable market garden in winter can be challenging. In my area, the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, winter subjects us to everything from subzero temperatures at night to sudden daytime pops of heat that will make spinach bolt. Fortunately, modern advances in plant protection technology — I'm talking about cheap plastic and cloth, folks — help our carefully chosen plants weather this testy season.
Invest in Infrastructure
In his 1909 book French Market-Gardening, John Weathers notes that Parisian markets completely outshone English ones in winter, and he credits the French gardeners' growing techniques. Parisians used glass cloches, which are essentially miniature greenhouses, over each plant or set of plants that needed protection, and bio-organic heating in the form of fresh, decomposing manure under the growing media. Cloches were so expensive that the gardeners took great pains not to break them, often repairing them by hand if they were damaged.
Modern market gardening requires a much smaller investment after you set up your original infrastructure. Greenhouses are the backbone of any successful winter gardening operation. If you have the cash, you can go for an insulated, double-layered, wood-framed, barn-sized structure, but for most of your growing, any single-layered hoop house will work. Instead of expensive, breakable, and sometimes irreparable glass cloches, a 12-by-50-foot hoop house for less than $1,000 will serve your needs all year long. However, a hoop house alone won't overcome the winter extremes I mentioned.
Fortunately, the fixes are easy to implement as problems arise. There are two major events to watch out for once your plants are safely sequestered in a hoop house: extreme cold and unseasonable warmth.
Extreme cold will be more likely, and it's guaranteed to happen in the northern parts of the United States. A hoop house will protect plants during the day, even at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but the structure will lose heat fast at night. So, as soon as twilight begins, we pull frost covers, also known as floating row covers, over the plants inside the hoop house. This creates an insulating effect, and prevents much of the moisture of the hoop house air from settling on the leaves and freezing. Instead, the moisture settles and freezes on the covers, adding further insulation against the day's heat attempting to escape from the ground. In the 12-by-50-foot hoop house I mentioned, you'd spend around $70 for two row covers, and about $100 for a large pack of 76-inch wires, to bend over the plants and hold the covers above their leaves.
Frequently, an unexpected warm front will bring us 75-degree weather in mid-January. Dealing with unseasonable heat is even simpler than with cold: Build your hoop house with roll-up sides. Roll-up sides are easy to set up and operate; Johnny's Seeds has some great plans for how to add them. You start with an extra layer of wooden framing on each curved side of the hoop house. Use wiggle wire to anchor the lower edge of the plastic sheeting securely inside a piece of channel lock — a thin strip of U-shaped metal with its sides pointed inward. Attach the channel lock to a length of electrical conduit, attach a crank, and then you're able to roll the sides up or down to trap or release heat from the hoop house. When it's fairly windless outside, an enterprising person can set up an entire hoop house with roll-up sides in a day.
Start a CSA
Loyal customers are the backbone of a successful market gardening enterprise. If you can consistently deliver the goods, they'll be with you through thick and thin. Building a network of customers can be as simple as running a regular stall at your local farmers market. You can collect quite a following just by delivering high-quality produce with a smile.
Community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) are a great way to sell to your customers even when your market isn't in season. Having a winter method of distribution is crucial, especially if you don't have many restaurants or grocery stores to sell to. You might try collaborating with other farmers in a local, established CSA. But if you're like my friends at Pear Tree Hill Farm in Radford, Virginia, a one-farm CSA can offer more freedom for less hassle.
It all started with a newsletter. In 2016, Amy Tanner decided to drum up interest in her and her husband's farm, and she began collecting emails and names from her regulars at the farmers market. She sent weekly emails detailing the goings-on at the farm, and began giving her customers a list of everything she expected to bring to market the following week.
Last year, she used that email list to start a pilot program for her single-farm CSA, accepting only 15 orders per week. She offered two purchase options: five units of vegetables for $15, or six units of vegetables and a dozen eggs for $20. She sends an email every Sunday evening describing the produce expected to be available the following Tuesday, and customers claim what they want on a first-come, first-serve basis — though regulars get priority. Customers order by the end of the day Monday, and on Tuesday (market day) they each receive their orders in a neat bundle, without any hang-ups.
Tanner's pilot was so successful that she increased it to 20 orders per week, and will probably hit 30 by the time you read this article. By taking it slow and building off her loyal customers, Tanner was able to ramp up her production and infrastructure in tandem with her customer base. A winter distribution plan was especially important for Pear Tree Hill, because the only winter market in the area is a 40-minute drive away in the wee hours of the morning. Instead of delivering there, Tanner invites her customers to pick up their bundles from a secondhand walk-in cooler on the farm. She's successfully transformed her seasonal CSA into a year-round moneymaker.
Cultivate Business Relationships with Chefs
Restaurants, if you live in or near an urban center, are arguably the best customers for market gardeners, especially during the winter. Many farmers markets have shut down by late fall, but good eateries have consistent business year-round. Cultivating your local restaurateurs takes the same kind of time and patience as growing plants, and it's just as financially rewarding. Call local eateries — anything from a farm-to-table establishment to a bed-and-breakfast is fair game. Avoid chain restaurants, as they tend to have mandated suppliers.
Start by making a list of restaurants you hope to sell to. Then, call the first one during operating hours. Tell whoever answers the phone that you represent a local farm, and ask if the restaurant would be interested in having a local supplier. If they say no, thank them and move on to the next place on your list. If they say yes, chances are the head chef, the owner, or both, will want to meet you. Before you end the call, share a short list of the produce you can offer, and set up a meeting.
First impressions are key in any relationship, including between growers and chefs. You don't have to dress up for your meeting, but do bring along your best-looking produce and show it off in a pleasing arrangement. Baskets or something similarly homey-feeling may not be how you intend to deliver regular supply shipments, but bringing produce that looks like it was cared for at every stage of the handling process will score you some brownie points. Also bring along an updated list of what you'll have available during the coming week — called a “fresh sheet” — and collect an email address you can send weekly updates to as well. Updating your fresh sheet weekly will help the chef plan out menus and ensure that you're only offering what you have available.
With a little bit of planning, the right system, and the best-suited plants for cold weather, you can grow enough produce to supply local restaurants and loyal market customers alike. And you can easily recover the cost of a basic hoop house and the floating row covers used inside it with just the crops grown in a single winter. If you take good care of your infrastructure investments, you won't have to worry about repairing or replacing them years down the road.
Choose Cold-Season Plants
After a hoop house, the best kind of cold-weather insurance is genetic: Choose cultivars and species that will grow in winter. This is the season for root crops and leafy greens, so that means tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and the like are all out of the question. Salad components are some of my most profitable crops anyway, so the fact that they also grow well in winter is a bonus.
In addition to the usual spinach and kale, we've had great success growing lettuce under cover, and we've discovered that lesser-known salad greens, such as mâche (also known as corn salad) and claytonia, with its small, delicate flowers, really spruce up salad when tomatoes and cucumbers aren't available.
At our spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains, temperatures drop to 10 degrees for extended periods of time. I've found only one spinach cultivar that grows in such cold conditions: 'Space.' This cultivar is relatively cheap, sweet when it's grown in the cold, a staple salad green, and a decent substitute for kale in recipes. You can direct-sow it in the garden, and if you have a wheeled seeder, planting a bed or two of spinach only takes a few minutes.
I've had a moderate amount of luck growing lettuces as well; the red cultivars tend to fare better than the green. Don't be surprised if an individual plant dies suddenly. But if you lose a significant part of a crop, either it's the wrong cultivar for your conditions or your insulation was insufficient. The Salanova® pelleted seed mixes by Johnny's Seeds tend to be most successful for me. I blanket the plants with floating row covers every night, and make sure the sun can reach them once the hoop house warms up a bit.
Kale grows in any weather, it seems, and quite frankly, I haven't seen a hardier vegetable in my life. Back when we were stubbornly fighting the wind on our hill without any greenhouses at all, kale was often the only surviving vegetable when the low tunnels blew off the plants. I've noticed the demand for kale starting to wane as spinach and chard become more acceptable — and more palatable — substitutes, but growing kale in the winter is still better than empty, frozen ground. I've had the most success with 'Darkibor,' 'Toscano,' and 'Blue Curled Scotch.'
Root crops are the other staple product of a winter farm. Beets, onions, and carrots are obvious choices, and they'll all thrive in cold weather, especially if grown under the protection of a hoop house. The best time to plant these crops is generally in late fall, so the warmer temperatures can jump-start the seedlings, but you can usually plant them whenever you need to.
If you plant all the root crops you'll need for the entire winter during the fall, you can use the cold ground to store the crops for you, rather than filling a root cellar with them. Beets and carrots work best under cover. Try ‘Red Ace' for red beets, and ‘Touchstone Gold' for yellow. This is also a great time of year to sow beets heavily for harvest as salad greens, and ‘Bull's Blood' is an excellent cultivar for greens. Carrots can be a bit more finicky with cold weather, so we plant 'Napoli,' a somewhat small but delicious carrot that's reasonably cold-hardy.
Radishes are the final tasty root I'll mention here, and we've had success with every variety we've tried, so I'm led to believe that pretty much anything will work. Go crazy with them. They're cheap and quick to grow.
Leeks can also be grown in winter, but they require a particular cultivation method. We constantly hill our leeks as they grow. The extra dirt helps protect the plant and keep it warm, and we get about a foot of blanched plant by harvest time.
Wes Smith is a market gardener, freelance writer, and native of Appalachia. You can follow Smith and longtime friend Adam's weekly X-Files podcast, “Midweek Monsters,” online.