Though the warm summer and spring months are the most popular and easy times of the year to grow crops, fall frosts don’t have to stop the harvest. It is possible to grow a bountiful garden throughout even the most frigid winter months if you follow these simple steps.
Though those residing in states such as Florida and Louisiana are unlikely to share frost concerns, the majority of the country experiences difficult winters from time to time. Gardeners in the less temperate states have often merely accepted their month-long growing season with resigned acceptance. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Many options can prolong or extend the harvest indefinitely. With a little planning, patience, and care, you are well on your way to mastering the winter garden…no matter where you live!
1. Figure Out Your Agricultural Zone
Before taking any steps to grow a winter garden, you must first figure out the lengths you will have to go to to keep your plants alive. If you have a garden, you should be aware of your states agricultural zone and the steps that the temperature demands. The agricultural zone, or ‘hardiness zone’ encompasses a certain area based on climate relative to the survival of plant life. For instance, if you live in an area that is labeled as ‘Zone 10,’ this means that you need to purchase and grow plants that can withstand a minimum temperature of 30-39 degrees Fahrenheit. The lower the number on the hardiness scale, the colder the area.
Becoming intimately familiar with which zone you are located in can be extremely helpful when choosing which plants work best for your area. There is no reason to garden with plants that are not suited for your zone, as they will die at the first hint of dropping temperatures. The United States Department of Agriculture provides a helpful Plant Hardiness Zone Map that enables you to zoom in on your state and locate your county.
2. Avoid Planting From Seed
As seeds are more delicate and finicky to grow than previously established plants, starting them late in the summer growing season is often a recipe for disaster. Purchase mature plants that are capable of weathering more severe winters and winds and can be sown directly into the fall ground. Starting from seed should be reserved for warm spring temperatures and indoor or greenhouse conditions.
3. Select Cold-hardy Plants
Obviously, it is best to select plants that are native to your area. This is especially important when attempting to keep plants alive throughout the winter. You will not want to plant a tropical fern in Maine or Minnesota where the temperatures are sure to drop below freezing. Take some time to educate yourself about the various labels on seed packets and plants. For winter gardening, you will want to seek out plants that have ‘cold-hardy’ ‘frost tolerant’ or ‘freeze-tolerant’ designations.
Plants that do particularly well in winter include:
- Blue spruce (zones 2-7)
- Wintergreen boxwood (zones 4-9)
- Catmint (zones 3-7)
- Pansies (zone 7)
- Winterberries (zone 2)
When growing edible fruits and vegetables, you are unlikely to find any that are hardy enough to survive frigid temperatures without added protection. However, some vegetables such as spinach, chickweed, cilantro, and Austrian winter peas are more likely to make it through the year when planted properly. These vegetables will live and produce well into the winter in zones 6-10, though can also flourish in other regions when given a little extra care.
Read Next: 17 Vegetables That Grow Well In The Shade
4. Plant Strategically
It really does matter where you plant your garden. Gardens located on the south side of buildings or against fences that serve as wind barriers are often the most successful for tender crops. This solution may also encourage you to plant new beds and fully utilize the space in your yard.
5. Cover Plants With Straw Before Frost
Taking a few extra moments to cover each of your plants with a thick layer of straw, mulch, or a burlap sack staked into the ground can add a few months to the winter season. Though this method is unlikely to keep plants alive in heavy, persistent freezes, it is beneficial when a simple frost is predicted. You can implement this protective layer in late autumn or before the first expected frost date. Plan for another option if you anticipate further dropping temperatures, however, as this is purely a temporary option.
The same concept can be implemented by allowing weeds to grow in your garden at the tail-end of the warm season. Though this seems counterintuitive, tall weeds can provide adequate shelter against bitter winds and freezing temperatures.
6. Know When To Pull The Plug
If you are unable or unwilling to bring in any outside technology that protects plants from freezing, you will have to know when to quit and harvest all your produce before is it damaged and inedible. When you notice freezing evidence on the leaves of your plants well into the morning, it is time to take action. Bring in your harvest and store your goods properly until enjoying. Tomatoes should be wrapped in newspaper and stacked carefully in boxes in a cool, dark room such as a basement. You can also steam and freeze radishes and carrots without sacrificing flavor.
7. Consider Raised Beds
Raised beds allow you to more carefully control soil moisture and prevent roots from rotting due to over-watering. As the weather cools down, there is generally more water present in the soil, so you will need to take precautions against this. Raised beds can also be turned into quick cold frames and are simple to construct.
Read Next: 6 Best Veggies To Grow In Raised Beds
8. Plant In Cold Frames
If you are interested in winter gardening, invest in an efficient cold-frame. You can make your own or purchase one fairly inexpensively. This is an excellent alternative to a full greenhouse, as it essentially serves the same purpose and can extend the longevity of your crops months past the first frost date. Since it is bottomless, this structure can be installed directly in your existing garden on top of your already growing plants. The glass or plastic protects delicate crops from frigid temperatures and intense wind while harnessing the power of the sun to warm the inside of the cold frame.
This method can not only be used to lengthen the growing season through the fall and winter but is also an effective way to get a jump start on spring planting. For freezing winters, you can go the extra mile and add a string of Christmas lights to the edges of your newly constructed cold frame. Simply staple them to the inside of the box. By utilizing the marginal heat provided by the lights, the internal temperature of the mini greenhouse will increase by about 10 degrees. Try keeping a thermometer inside your hothouse to manage the heat. You should attempt to keep the temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
9. Use Miniature Hoop Houses
Hoop houses, also known as low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels, or quick hoops, are an easy, affordable alternative to cold frames and are much more temporary. You can purchase one here. PVC pipe is bent over your crops in an arch, and covered with transparent plastic sheeting to allow sun rays to penetrate the tunnels. Many plans also recommend using metal pipes that are then staked into the ground for extra security. This option is ideal for those wishing to cultivate a larger garden area or grow taller vegetables that would not fit in a cold frame. Low tunnels can be easily taken down once the temperature warms, but they are sturdy enough to withstand even the harshest of winters.
10. Set Up A Greenhouse
Those gardening in particularly arctic climates far north of the equator may have to take more extreme steps to guarantee winter planting success. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, however; life can thrive when given the proper conditions. Consistent sub-zero temperatures often require nothing short of a heated greenhouse. Though this option is pricey, a popup greenhouse like this one, is sure to serve your needs well and provide you fresh produce throughout the dead of winter. For unusually cold nights, you will want to bring in a small space heater to ensure that the greenhouse remains at an optimal temperature (between 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit).
11. Install An Indoor Grow Light System
Not only does an indoor light system allow you to start seeds and prepare them for ground transplant, but you also have total control of the soil content, moisture levels, and light exposure and can effectively ensure a bountiful crop. Plus, if you have the extra space to install this indoors, you will be treated to cleaner, fresher air and all the other benefits that indoor plants bring. You may even be able to start harvesting from your sprouts once they have matured slightly. This is a particularly good option for lettuce, herbs, and other delicate leafy greens.
The days are over when you would stare longingly at your garden tools throughout the dreary, cold winter. Take charge of your garden and stop viewing frigid temperatures as enemies! Implement these steps today to ensure an abundant garden, all year long.