The New Year’s Garden and Winter Gardening Tips

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It’s officially winter here in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, but the garden is far from bare. Of course, you wouldn’t know it from walking by, as much of it is under cover…

Looking down at the garden on New Year's Eve.

Looking down at the garden on New Year’s Eve.

 

But just look at what lies beneath those tunnels!

This low tunnel, planted Labor Day weekend, is packed with veggies ready to be harvested! Picture taken January 4th.

This low tunnel, planted Labor Day weekend, is packed with veggies ready to be harvested! Picture taken January 4th.

An assortment of greens, including kale and Asian greens like tatsoi, michihli cabbage, and pak choy.

An assortment of baby greens, including kale and Asian greens like tatsoi, michihili cabbage, and pak choy. I’ve been successively thinning these for amazing winter salads!

Fava beans, planted in early November.

Fava beans, planted in early November.

 

Even though just four, 5 x 35 foot beds in the garden are currently in production, we have harvested over 110 pounds of vegetables since November 1st. I’m amazed by that number, too – over 100 pounds of food produced for my family in two winter months, without using an expensive greenhouse or supplemental heat.

It’s not terribly difficult to raise produce in winter, although most folks assume that it is. Here are my tips for growing a lot of food on a little land in the winter months.

 

Winter Vegetable Gardening Tips

1. Choose the right plants.

When I first gave serious thought to gardening for my family year-round, I wondered how I might grow tomatoes in winter. Now? I couldn’t care less. Why go through the expense of babying a plant through winter months for a subpar harvest, when there are delicious vegetables that thrive in the cold with no real effort on my part?

Many vegetables are exceptionally cold-tolerant, easily surviving temperatures that dip into the twenties, and even teens, at night. Many above-ground crops that fit this bill are brassicas, including kale, pak choy, kohlrabi, and most mustards.

You know it's cold when your plants have icicles. Once temperatures warm, this pak choy bounces back.

You know it’s cold when your plants have icicles (far left). Once temperatures warm, this pak choy bounces back.

 

If you want a good winter nitrogen-fixer that will reward you with beans come spring, try favas – some are hardy to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Root crops? Carrots, beets, rutabaga, and parsnips are perfect for overwintering, either in a low tunnel or with a thick layer of mulch. These veggies become so unbelievably sweet when grown in cold temperatures, you’ll forget about summer tomatoes and corn for a while.

Ice crystals grow on this unprotected fava bean seedling.

Ice crystals grow on this unprotected fava bean seedling.

 

2. Be intense!

As you can see from the photos above, and may have gathered from my previous posts, I garden very intensively. By using terraced, raised beds on our hillside garden, I’m not restricted to raising crops in rows, which is what those spacing recommendations on the backs of seed packets are all about. With raised beds, I can pack A LOT of plants into a small space, and that is incredibly important when your space is limited, like ours.

Still, there is a limit as to how closely you can pack plants together. Too closely spaced, and carrots will become thin and hairy rather than chubby and smooth. Kohlrabi will fail to form bulbs and beets will remain marble-sized if planted too closely. But if you don’t need to harvest crops all at one time, and you don’t won’t to stay busy in the garden planting successions of crops, then that really doesn’t matter, does it? Many plants will still thrive despite tight spacing – when they are harvested, it makes room for others to catch up (though they may not be able to until spring if you thin too late into fall).

These beds are incredibly packed, but the plants don't look too fazed.

These beds are incredibly packed, but the plants don’t look too fazed.

3. Don’t segregate… integrate.

Many people garden with a “row-mentality,” never allowing vegetables of different types to mingle. Bed plantings offer the freedom to mix vegetables and take advantage of space in the garden. I allow small, quick-maturing vegetables to grow right next to those taking longer to mature. The quick-maturing crops are essentially temporary residents of the surface area into which the larger and later-maturing plants will eventually grow.  I also employ this strategy in reverse, such as purposefully planting spinach among my turnips and rutabaga.  The spinach will eventually be shaded by the larger crops, but once they are harvested, the spinach takes off once again. This is an especially important strategy for winter, when seeds are unlikely to germinate until temperatures warm.

Even though I just harvested some rutabaga and turnips for last night's dinner (above), I already have spinach rebounding in their place.

Even though I just harvested some rutabaga and turnips for last night’s dinner (above), I already have spinach rebounding in their place.

 

 4. Aim for diversity.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and grow several varieties of a given vegetable in one season. Vegetable varieties can vary widely in “days to maturity,” allowing you to extend the harvest over a larger window of time. Varieties also vary in disease susceptibility, so if you should encounter disease issues, you are less likely to experience a total loss. You’ll also discover some varieties that do better in your garden conditions, as well as those that you simply like more than others, giving you the option to plant those exclusively in the future should you wish.

If ordering several varieties seems cost prohibitive to you, consider that most seeds remain viable for several years when properly stored. Buy 3-4 varieties of seed, reserving enough from each for planting in successive years, and you’ll come out even after a few years.

 

5. Give your vegetable beds a winter blanket.

Unheated low tunnels won’t keep your vegetables from freezing, but that doesn’t matter if you’re growing cold-tolerant crops.  But these crops are still susceptible to winter injury, however, such as through drying winds or compression from heavy snows – low tunnels afford additional protection from those forces.

Although night temperatures may not differ much, low tunnels can become significantly warmer during sunny winter days, providing a boost to late season plantings. This winter, I’m comparing the germination and winter survival of unprotected and protected Sweet Lorane fava beans, planted in early November. The fava beans growing in low tunnels are definitely ahead now, but we’ll see if that translates into an earlier and more productive harvest come spring.

Fava beans planted on the same date in adjacent unprotected (left) and protected (right) beds. The protected fava is taller and has more leaves than its unprotected sibling (red rock for scale).

Fava beans planted on the same date in adjacent unprotected (left) and protected (right) beds. The protected fava is taller and has more leaves than its unprotected sibling (red rock for scale).

 

6. Get in the garden!

Aside from harvesting vegetables, I probably walk through my garden every other day, usually in the early morning after I’ve let our ducks out of their house. I simply enjoy looking at “frozen vegetables” – each morning’s frost looks a little different from the others.

The same pak choy as in a preceding picture, on another day.

The same pak choy as in a preceding picture, on another day.

 

Routine observation of your garden will make you a better winter gardener. As a result of my own observations, I better understand the microclimates that exist in my garden. For example, I know the middle garden beds are the last to thaw, due to the long shadow cast from our house in winter, so I avoid that location for winter plantings. It’s easier to find the warmer spots in your garden when you’re out there chilling with your plants, too.

Finally, get in the garden and marvel at how these plants survive such extreme temperatures. It’s amazing to watch plant popsicles transform into harvestable greens after just a few hours of warmer temperatures.

Frosted broccoli shoots

Frosted broccoli shoots

 

Best wishes for your own winter garden in 2013!

 

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