There’s a special fifth season in my gardening year, and it falls between winter and spring. By the middle of February there’s little chance, even in the coldest climes, that the ground will freeze hard for longer than a few days, and yet I can feel that the weather will stay wet and chilly for months. In this special season there may be snow, penetrating icy rain, wind and fog, and yet the occasional balmy day too.
This fifth season is when the cold-season crops are at their very best…and most valuable in terms of economy, convenience, and nutrition. I’m talking about succulent crops like:
- mustards, for tangy and attractive greens
- collards, for meaty green fiber to go with any meal
- kales, for distinctive landscape interest plus mild taste
- cabbages, for beautiful meat or vegetarian dishes
- spinach, for incomparable salads and soufflés
- leeks, for gourmet touches at pennies a serving
All those crops can be planted as seeds directly in the ground, either in late summer or early fall (and I am experimenting with planting mid-winter, too). The seeds get started, and then the young plants have sufficient vigor naturally to withstand sub-freezing temperatures and burst into fresh growth every time conditions warm up a bit. I like to say these plants have antifreeze in their veins (so do many cold-hardy herbs, like French tarragon, bronze fennel, rosemary, sage, thyme, and bay laurel.)
When the spring gets too advanced, too warm and eventually too dry, cold crop plants actually get weak and stop producing. I’ve seen it year after year, and now look forward to my winter garden’s greatest utility: as an inexpensive little greengrocer’s shop just outside the front door.
Then there are some crops that may do well from seed sown in fall, but not necessarily. They may do exceptionally well when sown in the “fifth season,” around late February or early March. These are true cold-loving seed crops:
- lettuce; must be sown nearly on top of the soil, so winter/spring planting with lots of watering may show good results
- peas; sugar snaps and snow peas must be sown in almost cold soil, and will spring into life nicely
- cresses; they thrive in cold, wet spring soil and provide a vitamin tonic
- radishes; quick growing, they handle cold well and pack a lot of flavor and color
- potatoes; so satisfying and healthy, and super easy to grow from seed potato
Learning how to promote these cold weather crops in your own garden takes time; a full year, perhaps, when you can capture local climate conditions anytime but mid-summer (when cold weather crops will struggle with too-high temperatures and too-low rainfall).
Step one: have some seeds on hand. That means buying seed packets locally when they appear in garden centers, or ordering by mail. I like mail order because the variety is endless and seeds are delivered to my door. Some of my favorite companies are Sow True Seed, Botanical Interests, Renee’s Garden, and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.
Step two: divide seeds in half. Use half to plant in the “fifth season” and half to plant at the end of summer, say, August or September or later. Keep unused seeds tightly sealed in the refrigerator.
Step three: be sure to clean your garden and prepare the ground for planting seeds. That’s as simple as digging or cutting spent plant material and taking it to the compost pile, and then raking smooth the dirt. Seeds and seedlings like lots of fresh air…not having to struggle through masses of weeds and vines.
Step four: read the planting instructions on the seed packets. Every kind of seed has slightly different needs, and seed companies almost always include specific guidelines about depth and spacing. Seed packets will also tell you how many days from planting to harvest; in the case of radishes or scallions that may be only 60 days.
Step five: wait for new plants to grow.
Step six: mulch as needed around new plants with straw, as a blanket. Snow cover works too.
That’s all there is to it. Here’s a typical scenario for my winter greens garden. In late summer I clear out my edible landscape and create some patches of dirt in the flower beds and vegetable areas. By October I am planting seeds like crazy!
For one thing, garlic cloves are always planted in early fall and left to overwinter for maturation the next June or July. I plant onion “sets,” or bulblets by the dozen, and within six weeks have plenty of scallions to harvest. I plant all sorts of greens, and use the early thinnings to garnish sandwiches, salads, or soups. By thinning your patch of seeds, the remaining ones get space to grow sturdier.
And here’s another way to go, if you’re not confident about growing from seed. In late summer and early fall visit all your local garden centers to see what’s on the deep-discount sale table.
My friend DeNeice last year picked up lots of baby cabbages, spinach plugs, and decorative-and-delicious red mustard plants for next to nothing. She planted them by about November, and once the winter weather got rocking she had an amazing amount of produce in the garden, all without greenhouses or cloth row covers. None of the plants was super large, but even small plants can yield a steady supply of leaves. Pick or cut a few leaves from each plant, starting at the outside rather than cutting across the whole stem, and the inner core of the plant will continue to produce more foliage.
When spring weather warms up, those diminutive winter plants will be ready to put on heft, and you’ll be harvesting fresh greens from mature plants while the neighbors look on in wonder.
When summer does come, you will notice the cold weather crops getting tough, or leggy, or just disappearing. Again, clear out the spent vegetation, fertilize the soil, and then use the space for summer crops like beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.
Nan Chase grows winter hardy herbs and vegetables at her home in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape.