Before you close up your garden for the cold months, you’ll want to read this. Most gardeners work in their gardens in the spring, summer and fall. This is especially true if you live in the North where the ground is literally frozen for several months in winter. But with planning, most of us can grow vegetables all year, even in winter. At the very least, you can easily extend the growing season in fall and have the earliest harvest in the spring.
There’s a couple of things you’ll need–most importantly protection from the cold–to be successful. This can range from insulating row covers and additional mulch to cold frames or adding an actual greenhouse. Each gives additional protection to your plants and will allow you to garden in the winter. Don’t worry, you don’t have to start building a new structure to make this work.
First, start by knowing what your grow zone is. Then, do a little garden networking. This means simply having a chat with your gardening neighbors to see what they have successfully grown in the winter and what they’ve tried that didn’t work so well. If you don’t have neighbors, the local colleges usually have a horticulture department you can ask.
The next step is choosing seed. Seed catalogs are a great resource. Look for varieties that have cold hardiness. You have a much higher chance of success if you plant the varieties that are known to be more cold tolerant.
Once you’ve got those steps checked off the list, it’s time to garden. Here are 10 of our favorite winter vegetables:
- Asparagus. This vegetable, once planted, will come up every year and provide you with an ongoing harvest of asparagus spears—with just minimal care. Be aware though that planting asparagus is a lesson in patience. You will not be able to harvest until the third season, but it is worth the wait! This plant is like the tulips in your flower bed. The spears start to peep through the soil in the earliest part of spring.
- Garlic. Plant your garlic in the late fall. It will grow as soon as it starts to warm in the spring and is one of the first plants you will see. After growing a short while, the garlic will send up a flower shoot called a scape. As it grows, the scape will curl and, if allowed to remain, it will produce a flower head and seed. You should cut these scapes off so that the energy of the plant goes into making larger bulbs of garlic. Scapes are also delicious, tender and have a mild garlic flavor. They taste great just cooked in a pan with a little butter.
- Leeks. Leek seeds require a long growing season if you want the giant, hardy leeks, but they can be harvested at any size. Typically, you plant these before winter, let them settle in the ground under mulch or straw and watch them pop up early the same way you see garlic. Just don’t let them go too long in spring or you’ll end up with a leek that’s a little hard.
- Carrots. Carrots can be left in the ground if they have a good layer of mulch over them so that the ground doesn’t freeze. The advantage of leaving them in the ground is there is no need to store them or process them. Additionally, the cold in the fall and early winter actually causes the carrots to sweeten. You will be surprised at how great the flavor is!
- Parsnips. Parsnips are a forgotten vegetable, but they are a great ingredient in soups and roasts. Grow them just like carrots and leave them in the ground with heavy mulch. If you don’t dig them before the ground freezes, they will be fine and can be dug in the spring.
- Salad Greens. It is difficult to give up fresh salad for the winter, so it may be worth it to you to try growing some in the winter. You will need to use a cold frame if you live in the Northern part of the country. That will give you a little longer in fall as well as an earlier start in the spring. Choosing the cold-tolerant varieties is very important.
- Spinach. If your goal is to have fresh salad in winter, spinach can tolerate the cold a little better than other greens. It will still need protection from the cold. Spinach seed can also be planted in the garden in the fall and it will start growing as soon as the ground thaws in spring. It is one of the first seeds you can plant in the spring as it doesn’t require the warm soil to germinate.
- Broccoli, Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts. Growing cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts requires just learning how to grow one—and follow the same rules for the other two! None of them like the heat of summer. The trick is to time their growing for a harvest in the late spring before the summer heat and/or in the fall after the summer heat. Plant them indoors about six weeks before the last frost for your zone. For a late fall crop, sow the seed directly in the garden. Brussels sprouts should be grown as a late crop since it will benefit from some frost before harvest. The frost will sweeten the sprouts.
- Kale. Kale, like many on our list, is also happiest in cool weather. Whether you use this vegetable in soups or like to eat it fresh, being able to extend the season is important. Try the dinosaur variety as it is more cold tolerant.
- Swiss Chard. Swiss Chard seeds can be grown and cut for salad greens, providing a vitamin-rich treat during the heart of winter. You can let it grow and cook the stalks for a delicious side dish. Just note, you’ll want to protect your chard if you get temperatures that drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s their limit for winter longevity.
Readying crops for winter can be a great way to keep yourself busy and healthy during the winter months. Don’t forget: You can also use your indoor seed starting kit to start seeds in the winter for spring planting and to keep your thumb green no matter how cold it is outside.