Growing Fresh Veggies in Fall and Winter Part 1
Many of us grow vegetables during the summer growing season.
But did you know that with a little extra TLC you can harvest fresh food throughout a chilly fall and winter?
Where do you live?
In areas with moderate winters, many plants can be grown year round out in the open garden. In fact, summer may be too hot for the cool-season greens and other veggies. You may be able to put in a fall crop of heat-loving plants like tomatoes, okra, peppers, and squash for harvest in the mild days of winter.
On the flip side, where winters are cold and frosts are inevitable, fall signals the end of life for those warm-season plants. But that doesn’t mean the fresh veggie season has to end!
With special care, we can extend the harvest of summer crops. And what’s more, many greens and other veggies can be grown through the fall and winter, providing fresh produce even on the snowiest of days.
Four keys to success:
- Selecting the right plants and varieties
- Starting with mature plants
- Planting in a sunny, accessible site
- Protecting plants from the elements
Which plants to grow
For the most part, the focus is on leafy greens and root vegetables. See our list of suggested plants below. Within each plant group, some varieties thrive better than others in frigid temps. Here are some general guidelines.
- Many root crops may be left in the ground, mulched well, and harvested as need throughout the winter.
- Hardy vegetables such as carrots, kale, leeks, and mâche may need nothing more than poly hoops.
- Less hardy vegetables and herbs may require a cold frame to continue providing fresh greens for several weeks or months. Perennial herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme) may remain green longer in this environment, delaying dormancy.
- Fruiting warm-season plants like beans, eggplant, peppers, squash, and tomatoes may continue to bear or ripen fruit in a heated greenhouse.
When selecting varieties, look for words such as “cold tolerant” and “cold hardy.” The resources listed at the end of this post indicate some preferred varieties for fall and winter gardening.
When to start seeds
All plants should reach maturity before cold weather sets in. Some will continue to grow in protective structures; others will be in a “holding pattern,” maintaining their freshness until harvest.
Seeds should be planted well before the average date of first frost.
- In many Northern Hemisphere areas, ideal sowing dates fall between July and September.
- When time is short, select varieties that mature quickly.
- Some seeds may be sown outdoors during hot summer weather; others prefer to germinate at cooler temps and can be started under lights in a room that remains in the 70s F./low 20s C.
To determine the ideal last sowing date for a specific vegetable:
- If you don’t already know it, find the average date of first autumn frost in your area.
- Note the number of “days to maturity” listed on the seed packet or catalog info.
- Add an extra 10-14 days to account for fewer hours of daylight in late summer and fall (seed packet info is based on spring/summer planting).
- On a calendar, start with the average date of first frost in your area and count backward to reach the optimal planting date.
- Example: My packet of mesclun (mixed greens) seeds indicates the plants are ready to harvest in 28 days. I add on 14 days because I’m planting them in the late summer. Starting with our average first frost date of September 15, I count back 42 days and land at August 4, the ideal planting date. I may plant a little later than that, knowing that the seedlings will be nearly mature when the first frost hits. I can cover them with a protective material as that time approaches.
Where to plant
Accessibility is the first factor to consider, as winter veggies will do you no good if you can’t reach them! Many people like to site their structures near the house or a path that is well-used even in winter.
Root crops buried under deep mulch can be placed anywhere, but plants growing above ground should be located where the sun will warm them on bright winter days. A south-facing slope is ideal. The sun’s rays will reach through clear and opaque row cover, polyethylene, plastic, and glass coverings.
Water should also be accessible nearby. Though your plants won’t need much water during the winter, they’ll need to be nurtured as they mature in late summer and early fall.
How to protect plants
Several types of materials and structures provide protection from frigid air and frost.
- Plastic or glass cloches (jars, jugs, bowls placed over individual plants for light frosts)
- Mulch (straw, leaves, pine needles)
- Row cover fabric (flat or hooped)
- Plastic or polyethylene hoops (film placed over rigid hoops)
- Cold frame (protective sides with clear glass or plastic lid)
- Greenhouse (unheated or heated)
Using two or more materials together will increase the protection. For instance, cover mulch with row cover fabric. Place a poly hoop over row cover. Put a cold frame or poly hoop inside a greenhouse.
The veggies and herbs in the following list can usually be grown or harvested during the fall and winter seasons. Whenever possible, select a quick-maturing variety. Also consider your growing structure and the height of each plant, selecting a more compact variety for a short cold frame.
- Bok Choi
- Brussels sprouts
- Leaf Lettuce/Mesclun
- Mâche/corn salad
- Pak Choi
- Radishes (especially Diakon type)
- Scallions/Green onions
Most of the plants listed above can be directly sown outdoors or started indoors. However, some prefer a cool germination period. If your daytime outdoor temperature is above 80 degrees F./ 26 degrees C., it’s wise to start the following seedlings indoors.
- Mâche/corn salad
Favorites of experienced winter gardeners
Niki Jabbour’s Top Ten*
- Winter lettuce
- Asian greens
Home Garden Seed Association’s Top Ten**
- Salad greens
- Swiss chard
- *The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour
- **“Sow Seeds for Fall Garden” from National Garden Bureau at GRIT Magazine
- “Cold Frame Gardening” at Kitchen Gardener Magazine
- “Top Tips for Great Fall Gardens” by Vicki Mattern at Mother Earth News
- “Expert Advice for Greenhouse Growing” by Harvey Ussery at Mother Earth News
New to gardening? For additional basic gardening info, see the book list on our Recommended Resources Page.
Next up–Growing Fresh Veggies in Fall and Winter Part 2. Want it delivered to your email inbox? Just subscribe to Rural Living Today in the box below or at the upper right. You’ll receive all our regular blog posts as well as The Rural Living Insider with more news and tips from the RLT team.
Do you have experience with fall or winter gardening? Leave us a comment –share your tips and tell us about your favorite winter veggies.
This information is presented in conjunction with a live Rural Living Today event:
Friday, September 21, 2012 in Chewelah, Washington
A Gardener’s Gift Bucket full of fun and helpful goodies will be given away at the live event. Rural Living Today subscribers will be eligible to enter an online drawing too! Watch the blog for details in September.