One Year — One Ton of Fresh Food: Winter Garden Review

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Today’s blog entry is one of a four-post series that highlights my garden favorites over the past year — one post per season. I hope you’ll come back and see more stories from the past fall, spring, and summer, many of which I’ve never shared before, here or elsewhere.

Winter’s Garden

Winter is my favorite season in the garden. I know that sounds crazy and unbelievable — unless maybe you’re a winter gardener, too.

On a mission to harvest dinner (and carrots for the snowman) on February 3, 2013.

On a mission to harvest dinner (and carrots for the snowman) on February 3, 2013.

Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate eating a warm tomato fresh off the vine as much as the next person. But summer is a season of plenty; I can get vine-ripened tomatoes from my neighbors, my farmers market, or at roadside stands up and down our country highways if I don’t have a garden at that time.

If I don’t garden in winter, what fresh produce is available to me? Like most home gardeners and farmers across the country, the folks in my area take a break during the winter. That leaves the area grocery stores as my only option. They have produce from who-knows-where, harvested who-knows-when, and let me tell you… it ain’t pretty.

They're really selling this stuff? Rotten pak choy in the grocery produce aisle.

They’re really selling this stuff? Rotting pak choy and wilted vegetables in the grocery produce aisle.

 

Besides getting nutritious, delicious and inexpensive fresh produce, there is so much more I gain from the garden in winter. In the midst of a frozen and gray landscape, there is green and vibrant life under the protection of the fabric row covers and plastic sheeting in my winter garden. Some varieties even grow completely unprotected from snow and frost. The resilience these plants show to repeated freezing in the night and thawing in the morning sun is inspiring. You can’t help but be an optimist after spending time in a winter garden.

Frost-kissed Joi Choi Pak Choy. January 5, 2013

Frost-kissed Joi Choi Pak Choy. January 5, 2013

There's gold in them thar tunnels! An uncovered bed shows what lies within the tunnels on January 4, 2013.

There’s gold in them thar tunnels! An uncovered bed shows what lies within the tunnels on January 4, 2013.

 

Come before winter…

I also love winter gardening because it is so EASY. As I mentioned in my previous post on fall gardening, the hard work of winter gardening is over by the time winter actually arrives. The planting has been completed by the late summer and early fall, because in my plant hardiness zone (6b), plant growth slows down to a crawl in the winter. That also means that I can look forward to almost three months of no weeding! Since the vegetables are almost fully mature and tightly spaced, they outcompete any young weeds for light. And since temperatures are so cold, the majority of the weed seeds aren’t germinating, anyway. There’s not really much work left to do in the winter garden — except the harvest.

A colorful harvest from the winter garden on January 10th, 2013.

A colorful harvest from the winter garden on January 10th, 2013. Purple and White Vienna Kohlrabi, Bright Lights Swiss Chard, and Carrots (Lunar White, Danvers 126, and Scarlet Nantes)

Winter root crops have become super-sweet, accumulating natural antifreeze in the cold temperatures.

Winter root crops have become super-sweet, accumulating natural antifreeze in the cold temperatures. January 29, 2013

Along with the hard labor of getting a garden established, there are other things missing from the winter garden, too. Insect pests are gone. And as long as temperatures don’t climb too high in the tunnels, so are plant diseases. As I tell participants at my workshops, winter gardening just may be the easiest gardening you’ll ever do!

 

Living Without

Now that we’ve established that winter gardening requires very little energy input from you, let’s go ahead and clarify another thing that isn’t required — you don’t need a greenhouse, supplemental heat, or additional lighting to grow fresh vegetables in winter. That’s right… winter gardening is a zero-energy-input endeavor. It’s all about choosing plants that thrive in cold temperatures to begin with, and then giving them some extra protection from harsh elements like wind, low humidity, frost, and sub-freezing temperatures. If you’d like to learn about over 30 vegetable types you can grow in winter,  check out my list of vegetable varieties and planting dates for winter gardening in zone 6b (updated September, 2014).

Although cold frames have historically been popular for winter gardening, I prefer the flexibility and scalability of inexpensive low tunnels. Low tunnels, called mini-hoops by some folks, are easy to construct, and easy to store when they aren’t in use. They are essentially PVC or metal arcs anchored in the ground and covered with plastic sheeting or fabric row cover. I build 5 ft x 35 ft tunnels for less than $50 each, covers included. If you would like to learn more about how to build one for your garden,  check out this guide on low tunnel construction, or this post if you need pictures of the process.

How much difference in temperature can a layer of plastic provide? As shown in the following chart, it can easily be almost 40° F warmer inside an unvented low tunnel on a sunny winter’s day.

24hourcompare

Now, you might be looking at this chart and thinking, “A low tunnel might warm in the daytime, but the temperatures still dip to freezing at night.” In the example above, the low tunnels provided at least an additional 5° F of protection at night, which was at the low end of the range for the entire winter season. Even though we had many nights in the low teens (° F), the tunnel temperatures never dropped below 22° F at ground level. That may not sound like much, but as you can see in this freeze tolerance of vegetables chart, that little temperature boost means a lot in the plant kingdom.

Freeze Tolerance of Vegetables

But a slightly warmer temperature isn’t the only benefit provided by a tunnel. Think of the mechanics of freezer burn — the dehydration and subsequent oxidation of meat and vegetables stored in your freezer. How do you prevent freezer burn? First, you try to remove as much air as possible from the packaging and seal it well, so that the dry air of the freezer space doesn’t promote evaporation of frozen water from the food (i.e., sublimation). Alternatively,  you can increase the humidity in the freezer environment, such as by leaving open containers of water in your freezer. Low tunnels do a little of both for your plants, effectively increasing the humidity around the plants to inhibit sublimation of water from plant tissues, and also “package” the plants away from the drying effects of wind. After all, the greatest damage to cold-tolerant plants is not freezing per se, as they have adapted to deal with that, but desiccation (which is why frozen plants go limp and then perk up again once they warm later in the day, and why freeze damage is more severe on windy days than calm). Because of the additional humidity and protection afforded by my low tunnels, I’ve had lettuce, chard, and mustards that survived temperatures in the low 20s in the tunnel, when their unprotected counterparts kicked the bucket earlier in the season at higher temperatures. So, although the temperatures in the above chart are good guidelines, they’re not absolutes — low tunnels and cold frames can give you a lot more wiggle-room with a plant’s temperature limit.

These lettuces were direct sown in a low tunnel on November 6, germinated, and grew slowly all winter. Here they are March 6th -- they're now large enough for salads at the time everyone else is sowing their spring lettuce beds.

These lettuces were direct sown in a low tunnel on November 6, germinated, and grew slowly all winter. Here they are March 6th — they’re now large enough for salads at the time everyone else is sowing their spring lettuce beds.

Although much more cold-tolerant than lettuce, this unprotected kohlrabi is has "freezer-burn" on February 5th. Protected kohlrabi in the tunnels had no such damage.

Although much more cold-tolerant than lettuce, this unprotected kohlrabi has “freezer-burn” on February 5th. Protected kohlrabi in the tunnels had no such damage.

 

A Winter’s Harvest

I harvested over 150 pounds of fresh produce from our low tunnels between December 21, 2012 and March 20, 2013. Combined with the over 100 pounds of produce that we had harvested since November 1, 2012, that amounted to over 250 pounds of FRESH vegetables grown in the agricultural “off-season.” Not bad, considering that only about 1/3rd of our tenth-acre garden was in production, as the remainder was planted in winter cover crops.

winterharvest2013

At this point in today’s post, I’m turning it all over to pictures — I know you want to SEE all of this beautiful winter produce, right? Before I let the images speak for themselves, allow me to give a shout-out to the individual that inspired it all: Eliot Coleman. Mr. Coleman’s books provided the background and practical knowledge that I needed to begin learning how to grow my family’s food in winter. Although we’ve never met, I will forever be appreciative that he shared his experience and production techniques in his books. Although I hope you can get a good start in winter gardening through this blog, I highly recommend that you read Mr. Coleman’s book, “Four-Season Harvest,” which is frequently available in public libraries across the country (or thank him as I did with your purchase of it).

Winter Garden Images

The garden under snow on February 3rd.

The garden under snow on February 3rd.

Although the main broccoli heads had been harvested in fall, side shoots remained harvestable through mid-January with occasional protection from fabric row cover.

Although the main broccoli heads had been harvested in fall, side shoots remained harvestable through mid-January with occasional protection from fabric row cover.

Baby michihili cabbage and kale frozen in the early morning on January 5th, 2013.

Baby michihili cabbage and kale frozen in the early morning on January 5th, 2013.

Once temperatures warm, the same chi chi cabbage and kale have perked right up. This tunnel was protected without plastic all winter -- just an Agribon-30 row cover was enough.

Once temperatures warm, the same chi chi cabbage and kale have perked right up. This tunnel was protected without plastic all winter — just an Agribon-30 row cover was enough.

Most of our winter salads were this delightful mix of baby kale, tatsoi, michihili cabbage, and cress.

Most of our winter salads were this delightful mix of baby kale, tatsoi, michihili cabbage, and cress.

Rapini (broccoli raab) harvested for dinner on January 14th, 2013.

Rapini (broccoli raab) harvested for dinner on January 14th, 2013.

I worry more about temperatures getting too high in the plastic-covered tunnels than too cold. This endive has bacterial rot in the center, promoted by temperatures in the tunnels that climbed to 81 degrees F while I was gone on vacation and unable to vent.

I worry more about temperatures getting too high in the plastic-covered tunnels than too cold. This endive has bacterial rot in the center, promoted by temperatures in the tunnels that climbed to 81 degrees F while I was gone on Christmas vacation and unable to vent them manually.

Luckily that same endive recovered. Here it is on March 19th, 2013.

Luckily that same endive recovered. Here it is on March 19th, 2013.

This was a popular image that I shared on the Mother of a Hubbard Facebook page, illustrating the diversity of greens possible, even in winter.

This was a popular image that I shared on the Mother of a Hubbard Facebook page, illustrating the diversity of greens possible, even in winter (January 15, 2013).

Heading varieties of Chinese cabbage look so cool in the garden, although the outer leaves are more susceptible to freezing than European varieties. January 5, 2013

Heading varieties of Chinese cabbage look so cool in the garden, although the outer leaves are more susceptible to freezing than European varieties. January 5, 2013

Duck photobomb

Duck photo-bomb. February 3, 2013

January 29th. Bright Lights swiss chard, spinach, and other veggies are looking great in the tunnels.

January 29th. Bright Lights swiss chard, spinach, and other veggies are looking great in the tunnels.

Removing the covers on a warm February 26th -- the tunnels are growing progressively thinner from the harvests.

Removing the covers on a warm February 26th — the tunnels are growing progressively thinner from the harvests. More weeds are beginning to appear as a result of warmer temperatures and fewer plants, but they aren’t impacting vegetable growth.

Spring has already arrived in the tunnels on March 4th, as evidenced by this arugula blossoming.

Spring has already arrived in the tunnels on March 4th, as evidenced by this arugula blossoming.

caption this

“Hey! When she turns away, let’s just duck under that fence.” (Thanks, Vicky, for the caption suggestion!) Haul from the garden on March 4th, 2013.

Not broccoli raab... kohlrabi raab! If you think your kohlrabi or kale is done when it bolts, you're wrong. I prefer these to broccoli raab.

Not broccoli raab… kohlrabi raab! If you think your kohlrabi or kale is done when it bolts, you’re wrong. I prefer these to broccoli raab. Harvested March 13, 2013.

Starting seeds of the summer crops. March 18, 2013.

I love winter crops, but still have to plan for summer. Starting seeds of the summer crops under grow lights, March 18, 2013.

 

29 Comments

  1. Willow

    December 6, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for all the great information! Do you have a link or kind of thermometer or grow lights you used?
    Thanks!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      I use an indoor/outdoor thermometer from Lacrosse Technologies. I keep the main sensor on the porch where I can easily view it from my window, and then place a remote sensor out in the garden. I like it because it records the highest and the lowest temperature detected over a time period, and also because it doesn’t require any wires. It cost me about $15 from Amazon a few years ago, and has held up well so far. Cheers!

  2. Cathy

    December 6, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Love it! All that gorgeous produce in winter! I’ve done chard and lettuce into winter here with just a cheap layer of plastic drop cloth. I’d like to set up something more long-lasting (and better looking). Is there a certain temperature at which you remove the Agribon or plastic? We are in Oklahoma with very varied temps this time of year…high of 74 this past Tuesday and a low of 4 coming tonight (Friday).

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 6, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Thank you, Cathy! The plastic-covered tunnels are vented on even 40 degree F days if the sun is bright… I prop up the sides with wood boards, or slide the covers up halfway. The past few days we’ve had a stretch in the upper 60s, and I slid the covers completely to one side of the tunnel to fully open them. I really encourage using an indoor/outdoor thermometer with a remote sensor placed in the tunnel, just so you can get a feel for how high the temperatures can climb inside them — I don’t like my tunnels to heat over 67 degrees (the plants in there are cold-loving after all). The Agribon doesn’t require venting, which is a big advantage, but light transmission through the fabric varies depending on fabric thickness. For the heavier-weight Agribon fabric (AG-30), I remove the covers when daytime temps are above freezing (and may not put them back on at night if the temps are predicted to be above 28 degrees F). I’ve found that the plants really benefit from getting some air and unfiltered sunlight. Enjoy the winter gardening season!

      • Cathy

        December 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm

        Thanks for your reply. It helps to hear from someone who has done this. 🙂

  3. Lee @ Lady Lee's Home

    December 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Amazing! Beautiful vegetables. I grow in winter too and love it! No weeds, no pest, and so on, just like you said. This year I was a bit late to plant because I was pregnant and then gave birth 9/1 so not everything is growing as I wanted. Because of that I have some room left in the tunnels and after reading your post I am thinking maybe I should plant some more lettuce… I am in NC, zone 7b and so far our weather is not that cold.

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      Congratulations on your new little one! I have a few spots that have opened up after harvests in the tunnels, and am thinking about sowing some additional lettuce, beets, and spinach also. I’m pretty confident that they’ll germinate and grow (albeit slowly) — they may not be ready this winter, but at least you’ll have a big head start on spring.

  4. Laura Terry

    December 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    I have just discovered your blog, and I am thrilled! I was diagnosed with celiac disease 5 years ago after being tested for every autoimmune disease out there. I was diagnosed with a biopsy, but the gastroenterologist did the endoscopy looking for stomach ulcers. He said celiac disease would have been the last thing he would have tested me for based on my symptoms. Since then, my husband and I have been growing most of our own food, or supporting local farms (we have an amazing local farming community here!) and we have a flock of chickens. Life is amazing, and I have never felt better. My goal this year was to garden year round, and I thought I was going to make it, until we this recent round of winter weather that included ice, snow and temperatures in the single digits. I am really curious to hear about the winter tunnels. Are you able to transition them over to spring to protect crops from cabbage worms? Oh yeah! Thanks for telling and sharing your story and knowledge!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      Thank you, Laura! I am so glad to hear that you’ve been able to regain your health — it really makes you appreciate the garden all the more, right? The tunnels are great for other purposes like you describe, which is another reason I like them better than cold frames. I’ve used them for crop protection from insects, to keep out birds and drying summer heat when getting seed beds established… even moved them over our berries in summer to keep out birds (I’ll show a pic of that set-up in the next segment). Thanks again for dropping by, and best wishes!

  5. Pingback: Growing your own food year-round! "On a mission to harvest dinner (and carrots for the snowman) on February 3, 2013." | protractedgarden

  6. Jim

    December 8, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Oh man…great stuff! Kohlrabi raab? Tell me how that really tastes. Do you think you can sell it? I only have 148 square feet to grow in but I produce salad produce and veggies for 5 people throughout the year. It’s my ultra-mini CSA. I have a setup that is identical to yours except I’ve not put up a greenhouse for the first time. There’s just something about being able to harvest winter crops when it’s snowing outside but calm as can be under the greenhouse. Really enjoyed visiting..Jim

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 8, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      It is incredible, Jim! If you check out the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, you’ll find several members listing cultivars that have been developed with raab in mind. I personally like it better than broccoli raab, and even better than the kohlrabi bulb. I’ve also used the flowers as a garnish in salads. As to whether or not it will sell, if people try it, they’ll come back for more.

      • Jim

        December 9, 2013 at 8:42 am

        I went looking to find kohlrabi raab in the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook and only found one reference to it. I noticed a picture on your blog with kohlrabi leaves but no kohlrabi and thought to myself “what happened to the kohlrabi?” I think know. I will try it but am a little hesitant about it only because I’ve never heard of it before. I grow a standard kohlrabi plant so I hope this will work. Should they be used for a braise or stir fry, or do you use them raw right in mixed salad greens? Wow…never even thought of this one.

        • Ma Hubbard

          December 9, 2013 at 10:16 pm

          My favorite prep is to add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a skillet at medium high heat, add the raab, and then add just enough water (~1/4 cup) to braise but also cook off. Season simply with sea salt and cracked peppers. I sometimes add other seasonings, like a little bacon or garlic and red pepper flakes, but I prefer the simplicity of the kohlrabi raab. I also like the fresh buds, but not so much as broccoli (taste is similar, but texture is different). Kale raab is incredible, too, and since you have a SSE Yearbook, check out “Crispy Blue,” “Pentland Brig,” “Russian Red,” and “Sutherland” for descriptions of how they are used.

  7. littlemountainhaven

    December 10, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    It’s taken me reading this post 4 times to comment! Ah children interruptions. But at least I get to see all your pictures over and over again.

    I’m seriously envious and drooling over here for some fresh greens. I hear ya on the produce at the store, and here in Canada it comes from so many miles away. You seem to have a much warmer Jan & Feb that we do, although last year we had no snow in Feb. It’s been extremely cold here, temperatures we haven’t seen in like 7 years. I am really not sure how our winter garden would do with these temps. I like Eliot Colemens greenhouse within a greenhouse concept and we might try that next year. We don’t have a greenhouse yet but my 30th is next summer.. so ahem.. perhaps a big garden present is in order! Have you read the year round vegetable gardening Niki Jabbour ? I found her book easier to read for winter gardening.. or perhaps I’m just a sucker for beautiful pictures of vegetables (like yours!).

    I have yet to try endive, I’m becoming more fond of the bitter or spicier greens with winter gardening. It has definitely broadened my taste buds, I feel like a big kid again ‘well just try the new green vegetable that handles the cold oh so well’. Your ducks look happy! I haven’t eaten duck eggs before but they are something we’re considering adding to the homestead for some winter eggs (and apparently they help the water not freeze for the chickens).

    Your pictures are gorgeous! To see so much green (and red.. and yellow..) growing under the snow is so inspiring. I will share this post on my page tomorrow 🙂

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 11, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      We’ve had a very cold end to 2013 here, too — the ninth coldest on record. That said, we don’t have near the cold temps that you do (I believe I saw on your Facebook page that you had -4 F the other day?!). I love Eliot Coleman’s greenhouse within a greenhouse concept, too — would love to have the space (and of course, a greenhouse) to try that one day. Maybe I can just move up there next door to you and we can go in cahoots together. 🙂
      I just got Niki’s book a few weeks ago, and recently connected with her through Facebook/Twitter — she is very knowledgeable/approachable/fun. Her book is a wonderful contribution to gardening how-to generally, and because it is so graphic-rich is very friendly to the new and inexperienced gardener. I love that she has a “planting calendar” for each vegetable (usually seed packages just give the spring planting guide, but she gives one for all). I also appreciate the “Niki’s Picks” sidebars, in which she lists her favorite cultivars when discussing each vegetable. All-in-all, it is a great resource for anyone new to winter gardening.
      Great to hear from you, as always. Snuggle up with those sweet gals and stay warm!

  8. jody

    December 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Hi! I just found your blog and this series is very interesting! Where do you live? I think it’s probably too cold where I live, but I’m hopeful!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm

      Hi, Jody. We are in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, plant hardiness zone 6b. Two other successful winter gardeners are in plant hardiness zones colder than mine: Eliot Coleman in zone 5 in Maine (whose books I read and learned from), and Niki Jabbour in 5/6 near Halifax, Nova Scotia. I hope you can give winter gardening a try!

  9. Texan

    December 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I am amazed! Living in a climate where 108 during the summer is normal…. then we can see teens in the winter. My winters are not as hard usually snow and ice wise as where you live. I live in Texas. We can get cold real cold but we don’t usually see tons of snow. Your site has my mind whirling! I am so going to try this winter growing!

    I have metal hoop frames but they are big they each go over 2 raised rows in my garden. I have four of them. I have them because of our summers! I have to use shade covers to protect my garden or else the sun burns up produce and plants a like. I finally figured out if I would put shade covers over my garden, I could garden here! Much like you do for winter, I had to do here to protect my garden from the sun and heat.

    Now I am thinking… cover my hoop frames with plastic for winter. My frames are not low to the ground. They are metal frames that are high like a commercial greenhouse would be… but I think I could adapt your system… since we don’t get as cold as you guys do there. We are right on the line of zone 7b to 8a… 10 to 20 degrees in our gardening zone. Though we have been known to go to zero at times..

    I was just showing my husband your photos. I said will you just look at this!!!! Thanks so much for taking the time to post all of this information! I came across you by a pin I saw on Pinterest. :O)

    We grow as much of our food as we can and purchase as much organic as we can. I am a 30 plus year vegetarian. We are convinced our health is directly tied to our nutrition! The food we eat is so much more than just food! Its our health!

  10. Kim

    December 21, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for visiting my blog (post about the Muscovy ducks)!! I’m going to go read your other seasonal posts, very impressive. (I also like all the photos from Feb 3 the best because that’s my birthday day 😉 ).

    I am fortunate that our CSA produces all winter but on the flip side of that, it can make me a lazy gardener. I don’t *want* to rely on that CSA I want to be growing it myself. But… convienience sometimes wins out.

    Off to read more!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 22, 2013 at 8:40 am

      Thanks for dropping by, Kim. You are REALLY fortunate to have an all-year CSA — they seem to be few and far between. Enjoy the holidays!

      • Kim

        December 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm

        I’m sure it’s because I live in California 🙂

        Merry Christmas!

        • Ma Hubbard

          December 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm

          Winter CSAs are starting to catch on nationwide. I know of a few in Kentucky, just not anywhere close to where I live. 🙂

  11. Pingback: winter vegetables zone 6b | Grow Winter Vegetables For Healthy Great Tasting Meals

  12. cbellbooth

    January 19, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Love this post!! Impressive!

  13. rabidlittlehippy

    November 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    We don’t see the bitterly cold temperatures you see. Most days our daytime temperatures realise 10C although we’ve had -6C overnight. I too love gardening in winter. No watering like over our long hot and relentlessly dry summers. I grow garlic, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, parsnips, cabbages, onions, spring onions, greens and more. No snow to speak of here either so no need for row covers but in summer some shade is needed so our winter gardens are literally plant and forget until October/November. 🙂 I’m in Victoria Australia.

    • Cathy

      November 5, 2014 at 5:55 am

      Wow! Sounds like you’ve got dreamy conditions for winter gardening.

  14. Pingback: Square Foot Gardening-Winter Planning | The Wealthy Earth

  15. Jim

    August 29, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    love your site…