Prepping a productive winter garden
Wow, what a summer. If you’re a gardener, your garden this year has been a labor of love. Drought, peppered by random, short-lived downpours and scorching hot days, made this a difficult season.
Soon, our days will grow shorter and cooler, marching slowly toward autumn. Maybe you’re not ready to be done yet. Your green thumb is still a little itchy. Well, I’ve got great news for Virginia growers: gardening doesn’t have to be reserved for the warm months of May through August!
With a little planning, you can grow and harvest fresh veggies all year, and keep your soil healthy for early and easy spring planting.
There are just a few things you need to know before hitting the dirt:
1. When is the first “killing frost”?
2. Which veggies are frost-hardy?
3. When do you need to plant them?
Here in zone 7a, our average first killing frost date is around October 14. This is the date that the frost becomes strong enough to kill tender plants. Generally speaking, you’ll want your fall/winter vegetable garden started well before this date, in August or September. However, gardening hacks such as cold frames and hoop houses can protect those more tender plants through the frost and extend the growing season well into winter. (See sidebar on page 71.)
Since most hobby gardeners stop growing in the fall, it’s not always easy to find garden-ready plants for sale after August.
This means you may have to start from seed. When purchasing veggie seeds for the winter garden, you’ll want to look for the words “hardy” or “frost-tolerant.” These are the varieties especially equipped to handle the cold.
So what exactly can you grow through the colder months?
Some of the most nutrient-packed produce we enjoy thrives with a little frost. Here’s a list:
Brassicas: Veggies in this family such as broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi actually grow better in the fall, and can even survive snow if they’re planted early enough to get established before the really cold weather sets in.
Carrots and their friends (such as radishes & turnips) love a little frost and actually get sweeter, because they naturally produce a surge of sugar to protect themselves from the cold. That means tastier harvests for us!
Peas: This is probably my favorite.
Snow peas and sugar snap peas grow well in the fall garden. Plant new seeds every two weeks for a constant harvest as long as they’ll hold out. Depending on the harshness of our winter, you can plant right through November!
Brussels Sprouts: Like carrots, they actually get sweeter after a frost.
Lettuces and greens: Little leafy guys such as collards, lettuces, mustards, arugula and endive are tender, but given the right conditions they can tolerate the cold and provide a long harvest of healthy veggies. Plant these in cold frames or hoop houses in a sunny location to protect them from the chill, and reseed every few weeks.
Garlic and onions: These can be planted as late as October and November, and love a nice, long growing season. But don’t expect a winter harvest, they’re slow to grow (but worth the wait).
There are some really nice benefits to cold weather gardening. For one, I’m not on my hands and knees in 90 degree weather pulling weeds and plucking cherry tomatoes. But also, there are far fewer pests and diseases to worry about, fewer weeds, and—I hesitate to say this, but—a winter garden requires a bit less work. It also keeps your soil loose and productive so that it’s ready in the spring.
Winter gardening is fun and experimental, because our winters are a little unpredictable. I love trying new things to see what can survive.
How to Extend the Season withCold Frames
A cold frame, defined: A cold frame is a shelter from frost that uses sunlight to maintain warmth and moisture for your veggies. You can spend a lot of money on cold frames, but they don’t have to be fancy or expensive at all.
I use my collection of old windows—which can be found everywhere on the internet for cheap and sometimes free—and whatever I have laying around my yard to construct cold frames.
If you have good sunlight on a particular side of your house, you can even use your wall as the fourth wall for your cold frame. I build a little box, usually out of wood or hay bales, and then I place a window on top of it. I like my window to have a little angle to it in order to capture the most sunlight. You can find plans for cold frames online. The more airtight and sealed, the warmer the temperature will remain inside.
Why they work
Cold frames allow you to harvest longer, and even plant later, in the season. They keep the soil warm and they keep ice off of tender leaves. For most of the list of vegetables I mentioned, you’ll want to get them planted no later than the end of September, especially the tender ones like greens. But if you use a cold frame, you can plant continuously much later into the season.
For example, carrots like a good frost, but they (like most vegetables) can’t survive extreme low temperatures or constant freezing. So after the first fall frost, or once it starts to get consistently cold outside, you can plant your next carrot harvest into cold frames. I succession-plant carrots and greens all winter long in my cold frames. They get a little slower to mature in the cold, but planting every week or two gives me a nice consistent harvest.
One thing to remember about cold frames is that on warmer days, you’ll want to crack the top open a bit to allow some air flow and moisture reduction. Then close them overnight and on those bitter cold days.