Welcoming the Winter Garden

1 / 2
Photo of Group Editor Rebecca Martin working in a garden.
2 / 2
Photograph of Group Editor Rebecca Martin's signature.

The cicadas have been thrumming in the trees lately, and that sound always makes me think of fall. And thinking about fall gets me geared up for off-season gardening. While other gardeners are putting their plots to bed, I’m happily growing crops that will feed my household for most of the winter. When nearly everyone else is buying greens at the grocery store in the depths of winter, we’re proudly harvesting our own.

Are you an off-season gardener too? If not, I encourage you to try it. It’ll jump-start your love for gardening at exactly the time of year you’re feeling worn down by watering, weeding, and mosquitoes. Fall and winter gardening rarely involves any of those.

I used to believe only professionals could garden in the off-season, but learned through a few years of experimentation that I didn’t need to invest in an expensive heated greenhouse. When the first frost threatens, I protect my plots with what’s known as a “low tunnel”: 3-mil plastic sheeting suspended over the crop by lengths of flexible PVC pipe whose ends have been jammed into the ground. I hold the edges of the plastic in place with old wooden tool handles and bricks I’ve stashed around the property. This systems works really well in my Zone 6a garden; if you’re further north, you can add a second layer of plastic or try bordering the bed with straw bales for protection from cold winter winds. Experiment! Seed is cheap — especially if you save your own from year to year.

Winter gardeners do have to focus on cold-hardy crops — no tomatoes, peppers, or squash. But there are plenty of other options. Frost-sweetened carrots and parsnips can’t be beat; I store both of these crops directly in the ground under a low tunnel. Many greens are cold-hardy and some will regrow all winter long after you cut them. I grow arugula in tubs on an unheated, glassed-in porch, and appreciate its spicy flavor even more in January than in summer. The past couple of years, I’ve been pushing the envelope on a warm, south-facing slope we’ve terraced with narrow beds. Last winter, some ‘New Red Fire’ lettuce survived there, uncovered, down to minus 9 degrees!

Timing is everything in life, and especially in winter gardening. This fall will be my third attempt at growing kohlrabi; I haven’t yet been able to get the planting date right. For most crops, you only have to note the days to maturity on the seed packet, and count backward from your first frost date to know when to plant them.

Have you tried winter gardening? Tell me about your triumphs, your failures, and what you learned from them at rmartin@grit.com.