How to Grow a Fall and Winter Garden

Early Spring Greens

In a mild winter, the greenhouse soil was diggable in February. Here spinach is ready beginning of March.  Double and triple your rows to utilize your space better.
In a mild winter, the greenhouse soil was diggable in February. Here spinach is ready beginning of March. Double and triple your rows to utilize your space better.

Extend Your Growing Season to Winter Harvests

Growing and harvesting food in winter is kind of like hitting the lottery. After being told all your life that when fall is over that's it till spring, the realization that this isn't totally true can bring tears of joy to most gardeners.

This is doubly true for families struggling to make ends meet, and wishing their vegetable crops were more year round. Or for people who just like growing their own, for whatever reason.

The truly incredible thing is that, although it is nice to have a greenhouse or cold frames, when push comes to shove, a roll of heavy plastic, some mulching material, and some timely crop planting can give you food out of your back yard year round.

How to Get Your Fall Garden In

  • Give your soil a good digging or tilling, and add in a bunch of compost/composted manure. After all, your garden has been working hard all summer, it's time to replenish the soil. Think of it as a deep-massage treatment for your garden.
  • Plant your seeds six to eight weeks before your local frost date, to allow them time to get started.
  • Consider mulching your rows and plants, whether outdoors or in a greenhouse or cold frame. This helps keep the soil warmer longer, and helps protect your plants, while adding organic matter to your soil.
  • Get some clear plastic for an inexpensive greenhouse effect, for cold nights and after frost. Don't forget to take it off on warm days, or your cool-loving plants might not do so well.

Winter Lettuce in the Greenhouse till December

My child and her friend picking winter lettuce to snack on in November.
My child and her friend picking winter lettuce to snack on in November.

Cold-Loving Edibles Group 1-Good Till the Frost Hits

Here is a list of some of the most common types of seeds that will grow in cool, damp climates, and thrive. I have planted them in February, in the greenhouse, in mild winters, and been eating out of the greenhouse by the end of March. They do grow a little slower, but don't seem to mind their cool beginnings.

  • Lettuces
  • Mescluns
  • Raddichio
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Radishes
  • Summer Turnips
  • Endive
  • Cress
  • Watercress
  • Chives
  • Rhubarb
  • Asian Greens – bok choys, suey choys,
  • Mustard greens
  • Mizuna

For quick growers, like lettuces and spinach, planting six weeks before frost is still going to give you a good feed, possibly more if you cover with plastic at night, or plant in the greenhouse. If you are planting in a greenhouse, you can wait till the weather is a little cooler as your greens don’t like the heat from the end of summer. I have personally harvested spinach and winter lettuce right into December in the greenhouse, and that is here on the Northern Coast of British Columbia. This is, of course, by carefully selecting types that will do well here.

Raddicio and Endives take longer to grow, and more care, but are still lovers of cool and damp. I suggest researching these a little more, if you would like to grow them, as a little more care and planning is needed for growing, especially with the endive, to get those nice, white, crisp little heads.

Radishes and Summer Turnips have about the same maturing date, usually anywhere from 25-35 days depending on the type. While nice little bulbs take longer to form as the days get shorter and may not get as plumb as in the spring, don’t forget that the greens are completely edible and make fantastic additions to salads, smoothies, stir-fries and sandwiches.

Leaf Lettuces and Mesclun Mixes are the way to go for fall gardening. Head lettuces are wonderful, but take a lot longer to grow, more space, etc. You will get a lot more eating material out of the leafy types in a much shorter period of time. Mesclun mixes, which simply means a mix of leafy greens, are a standard with most seed companies now. Pick one that is labeled Winter Mix, or something similar, and get it in the soil.

Asian Greens & Mizuna, which is a mustard green, are also fabulous for cool-weather growing. Mizuna is a low-light power house. Don't plant to much at a time or you wont be able to keep up. Most mustard greens bok choys and suey choys are great for cooler weather.

Cool Weather Roxynante Cucumbers

My fave english-type cucumber from West Coast Seeds, has been an extremely prolific producer in our greenhouse for a few years, giving us cucumbers up until November.
My fave english-type cucumber from West Coast Seeds, has been an extremely prolific producer in our greenhouse for a few years, giving us cucumbers up until November.

Heat-Loving Veggies...or Not

It used to be that unless you have a heated greenhouse and lighting to extend the hours of daylight, things like melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes are often out. This is changing as more information is available to us via the internet and travel. I'm not talking about GMO foods either. I am talking about hybrids and even some of the rarer old heirlooms that have fallen out of favor in the gardening community, for varieties that maybe grow faster, or produce more. More on that in a bit.

I will share some of my favorites here, but please remember, testing out a few new types of seed each season along with your tried and true standby's will give you a wonderful variety of garden goodies.


Me Beside My Cucumbers

Greenhouse life is total zen time for me. Growing things is so rewarding, especially when you get to eat it afterwards! Roxynante cukes on the left!
Greenhouse life is total zen time for me. Growing things is so rewarding, especially when you get to eat it afterwards! Roxynante cukes on the left!

Mizuna, the Low-light Winner

Organic Mizuna Asian Greens - 500 Seeds
Organic Mizuna Asian Greens - 500 Seeds

Once sprouted and growing, Mizuna does crazy growing in very low-light conditions. Five hours a day, and a two foot row in the green house over-whelmed us. This is a work horse.

 

Short List for Your Winter Garden

  • Ammend your soil with compost and composted manure
  • Get your cold-loving seeds in
  • Mulch
  • Protect your investment with a tarp or clear plastic before snow fall

Cole Crops are Usually Very Hardy

Radicchio, cabbages, kale...pretty much all cole crops are cool weather, if not extremely cold tolerant.
Radicchio, cabbages, kale...pretty much all cole crops are cool weather, if not extremely cold tolerant.

Type 2 Cold Weather Vegetables-Bring on Winter

The following vegetables are the extreme work-a-holics of winter gardening.

If you look at history, from Russia and the Ukraine, to Holland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, savoyed cabbages, kale, and leeks were winter and spring staples. They could be planted in early spring for a late fall harvest, or planted in late summer for winter and spring harvest.

And yes, root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and parsnips can be planted late summer –sandy soil is best- and when mulched thickly with straw, and a tarp, can be harvested from the soil through the winter. This of course requires loosening of the soil along your rows right before freezing so it’s a little easier to get at. Carrots have been known to keep growing in the spring when left to their own devices.

  • Cabbages- look for old heirlooms that used to be planted in late summer, and harvested in spring or through the winter. Plant in late summer to get a good start before snowfall.
  • Kale - extremely hardy. Provided it is half to three-quarters grown, it will survive under the snow, and can be harvested as needed, provided you don't mind digging in the snow for it.
  • Onions and shallots-again, start in the fall for spring harvesting
  • Hardy spinach-start in late summer, and mulch and cover before snowfall, harvest as needed.
  • Snow peas-don't forget you can eat the fresh shoots, very popular in Asian cuisine-harvest into late fall. However, you need them planted long enough before frost that they will still flower and form pods. This needs to be done after the summer heat is over as they don't do well with heat.
  • Garlic-best planted in the fall and harvested the next year in late summer or fall.
  • Carrots-get cold hardy types, and plant in late summer. Before the ground freezes, dig gently along the rows to loosen the soil. Then mulch, protect with plastic, and dig as needed.
  • Parsnips-same as carrots
  • Leeks- get your timing right, and harvest all winter

This next list, while not harvested in the winter, will come back year after year for spring, summer and fall harvests.

  • Rhubarb
  • Asparagus
  • Chives
  • Garlic chives
  • Parsely, once estabilished may come back in the spring if grown in protection



Growing Herbs in Winter

Some herbs do best with heat and those minimal 10 hours of daylight. Consider growing them in pots that you can bring in when the weather changes to winter storms.

Put them in an appropriate window and supplement with an inexpensive grow light with LED lights. You do not need to spend ridiculous $$$$ to keep your plants and taste buds thriving.

That is a topic for a different blog post, but here are a few herbs that do well either as all-season annuals, or will die down in winter but come back year after year.

Dill- reseeds and comes up randomly all over the garden in the spring. I pull it up and freeze or dry it if it happens to be overtaking other vegetables. Otherwise it just grows happily wherever until fall when it has reseeded and is ready to harvest.

Chives- the perennial green onion, dies down at frost and reappears first thing in early spring.

Winter Savory-zones 4-8, dies down at frost and comes back in the spring.

Garlic-plant in the fall, and harvest the following fall. Yes it is a one year crop.

English Thyme- obviously coming from a country with lots of cold, wet weather, every garden should have this perennial, year after year in their garden. Harvest throughout the season, to use fresh, and be sure to dry or freeze extra for use once it dies down in the fall.

Grow Herbs in Containers

Growing herbs in containers allows you to bring them inside to a warm window sill when the weather turns cooler, extending your fresh herb season.
Growing herbs in containers allows you to bring them inside to a warm windowsill when the weather turns cooler, extending your fresh herb season.

Let Me Know What You Would Like to Grow!

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Background Research

My final suggestion here is to always do a little research before jumping into something. This includes having a good reference book, not just the internet, for research. I'm not saying you need a ton of books, but a few on the basics can be a big bonus.

Have you tried winter gardening before? Share your experience below, I would love to hear the stories!

© 2014 Cathy Hague

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