Winter Gardening Tips: Growing cold-hardy winter crops

When we think of eating homegrown food during the cold season, we often think of staples such as potatoes squirreled away in the root cellar, or of vegetables such as winter squash stashed in a cool, dry place. But many gardeners are discovering the joys of harvesting fresh produce all winter long, which allows for feasts of cold-hardy crops that are just-picked and just right for the time of year.  The seed-buying season used to be January, February and March. There’s also a surge in June, July, August and into September for fall-planted crops. Eating from the garden is just too pleasant to give up simply because the temperature — and the snow — may have fallen.

‘Space’ spinach has smooth, slightly savoyed leaves. This winter gardening standout has an extended harvest period gardeners love.

I don’t mean growing tomatoes in January. Fruiting crops no doubt need long, sunny days and warm conditions to complete their delicious arc of softening, deepening in color and perfectly ripening. Winter fare is about leaves, stems and roots, which mature more and more slowly as the weather cools and the days shorten. Better still, winter vegetables sweeten with the cold. If you’ve ever tasted a winter-pulled carrot or winter-cut spinach, you’re familiar with the treasures winter gardening can bring.

Climate Considerations

So, should a winter gardener grow different crops depending on her climate? Not necessarily. Winter has always been a good season for a wide array of crops in the southern states, and in the northern tier of the United States, you can grow the same crops if you use a winter-protection device to broaden your garden’s productive season. This might be a cold frame, a simple greenhouse, the quick-hoop system, or just a layer or two of floating row cover, often called Reemay. All of these season-extension devices capture some of the earth’s natural warmth, especially at night, and block the chilling, drying effect of wind.

Striking ‘Red Oak Leaf’ lettuce can stand the cold, and can be harvested multiple times.

At any latitude in the United States, there’s enough daylight to grow a wide range of winter crops. A recent mother earth news survey on winter gardening turned up a surprising number of cold-season gardeners in places where weather would present a challenge, such as Ontario and Wisconsin, as well as many in unsurprising locales, such as Texas and Southern California, where an outdoor garden can keep on truckin’ with a simple shift of the planting scheme. While in the Northeast we think of the year’s “second spring” starting around August, warmer southern areas can shift that date by a couple of months to around October, when fall temperatures will still be high enough to achieve germination and allow plants to reach maturity.

‘Lexton’ leeks are exceptionally cold-hardy and had the healthiest foliage of all leeks in a variety trial

Winter growing has taken off in the commercial sphere, too, which helps farmers with short growing seasons make a living year-round. But home gardeners have an advantage: They don’t have to produce uniform, cosmetically perfect vegetables on any set schedule for a competitive market. In short, home gardeners can better roll with winter’s punches than large-scale producers can. Home-scale winter growers can experiment with the timing of their crops, sowing new ones whenever a space, no matter how small, becomes vacant. They can try lots of varieties until they find the ones that grow best — and taste best — for them. The seven well-tested crops and varieties illustrated here are some of my absolute, tried-and-true favorites.

Tatsoi is the cold-hardiest of all Asian greens. Enjoy its mild and slightly mustardy flavors in winter stir-fries and salads.

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