I’m often asked, “How do you grow vegetables in the winter – isn’t it too cold?” Sure, it’s cold, sometimes downright frigid, but the defining factor in the success for a winter garden isn’t cold, but rather day length, and once the day length slips below the 10 hour mark – in early November in my region – most plant growth comes to a standstill. Therefore I’m not really ‘growing’ food in winter, but rather just sheltering the cold tolerant veggies and herbs, which patiently wait in their protective structures until I’m ready to harvest. There are a few crops, like spinach, tatsoi, claytonia and mache that shake off the shorter days of fall and winter and continue to slowly put on new growth, but for the most part I need to make sure that my cold season crops have reached a harvestable size by the time the day length shrinks to 10 hours in late autumn.
The ability to harvest throughout winter has transformed our garden into a year round food factory, but besides a non-stop supply of homegrown organic food, there are other hidden benefits. For example, because our cold season crops are tucked beneath simple winter shelters or a thick blanket of mulch, the winter is the only time of the year that I don’t fight our skyrocketing deer population – they’re left with nothing to nibble! As well, the winter garden is extremely low maintenance with little to do from November through March, besides harvesting. There’s no need to water or weed the winter crops and no slugs, cabbage worms, flea beetles or other common garden pests to foil your harvest.
Many people are also surprised at the diversity of our winter garden – it’s not just kale! We grow a wide range of cool and cold season edibles in our winter cold frames, mulched garden beds, and mini hoop tunnels, with over 30 different types of root crops, leafy vegetables, and aromatic herbs. The extensive list does include kale of course (at least 6 varieties), but also, leeks, carrots, parsnips, beets, scallions, spinach, mizuna, mache, endive, arugula, parsley, chervil, and thyme.
Cold Season Superstars:
- Tatsoi – Tatsoi is the perfect winter cold frame crop, shrugging off the cold weather and low light conditions. It forms tidy rosettes of crunchy, spoon-shaped leaves that, like spinach, can be enjoyed raw or cooked. It is also very quick to grow, with a baby crop ready just weeks after seeding.
- Arugula – Often called ‘rocket’ for its speedy growth, organic arugula is pricey at the supermarket, but quick and easy to grow. It’s also extremely cold hardy. I begin seeding in early September and continue through early October for a homegrown supply of peppery leaves that will persist into winter under the cover of a mini hoop tunnel or cold frame.
- Carrots – Our best tasting carrots come from our last seeding of the year, which takes place in late July. That harvest won’t begin until mid-autumn, but it then continues through winter until we run out sometime in March. When pulled, those winter harvested roots are the simply the sweetest carrots imaginable. We grow a rainbow of carrots, from ‘Purple Haze’ to ‘Atomic Red’ to ‘Yellowstone’ to ‘White Satin’, but we also grow orange types, and for winter, the highest quality and best flavoured roots are ‘Yaya’ and ‘Napoli’.
- Kale – Kale has a well-earned reputation for cold tolerance and it can be grown as a baby crop or allowed to mature into 2 to 4 foot tall giants. For salads, you can’t beat baby kale, which offers the most tender foliage and we seed it thickly in late summer in our cold frames or garden beds that will eventually be topped with a tunnel. Beds with mature plants are covered with mini hoop tunnels in late autumn and harvested throughout winter. Come spring, those plants will produce flower buds and the immature buds, which resemble small broccoli crowns, can be eaten as well as the subsequent yellow flowers.
- Turnips – ‘Hakurei’ Japanese turnips are one of our favourite early winter cold frame crops (Nov-Jan). We grow them for their creamy white roots (picked when 1 to 1 1/2 inches across), but we also love the leafy tops. We eat them raw in a simple salad (just a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice) or cook them like spinach.
- Mache – Also known as corn salad, mache is a popular winter salad green that forms 2 to 4-inch wide rosettes. The leaves are very tender and have a pleasing nutty flavor. The plants are harvested whole by slicing them at soil level and can be tossed in salads or used as a bed for chicken or fish dishes.
- Swiss Chard – Perhaps the hardest working salad green, a clump of Swiss chard can provide a non-stop harvest from spring through late autumn – and even longer with protection. Home gardeners love brightly coloured varieties like ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Peppermint’ or ‘Magenta Sunset’. For cold hardiness, however, you can’t beat the white veined varieties like ‘Fordhook Giant’.
- Spinach – Spinach is a great choice for a fall and winter vegetable garden. Not only does it prefer the cool, short days of autumn over the heat of summer, but it also appreciates the ample moisture that fall often brings. Direct seed in a sunny area of the garden from late August to late September and within weeks, you’ll be rewarded with a dense patch of deep green leaves that will continue to produce until the hard frost. If you plant in a cold frame or cover your garden bed with a row cover or mini hoop tunnel, the harvest can easily be extended into winter. Try ‘Monstrueux De Viroflay’ or ‘Giant of Winter’.
- Mizuna – Packing less heat than peppery mustard greens, mizuna is a welcome addition to the autumn and winter salad bowl. The mild, cabbage-like flavor pairs well with other greens for mixed salads, or toss the mature leaves into stir-fries or wraps. Direct seed mizuna in cold frames or the garden about 6 weeks before the first fall frost.
- Beets – As a child, my family planted long rows of ‘Detroit Dark Red’ and ‘Cylindra’ beets for a late summer crop. If only we knew how much sweeter they would have tasted if we had left them in the garden until they had been kissed by frost. Today, our fall and winter beets are an anticipated treat and we grow a range of varieties from ‘Touchstone Gold’, a bright yellow-orange beet that doesn’t bleed when sliced to ‘Bull’s Blood’, which is planted in cold frames for its dense crop of deep red leaves.