Winter Gardening Tips: Best Winter Crops and Cold-Hardy Varieties

Don’t limit your harvests to summer! No matter your region, you can grow cold-hardy winter crops that have proved they can take biting temps. Just follow these winter gardening tips from one of the foremost four-season gardeners in the country.


| October/November 2013



Space Spinach

‘Space’ spinach has smooth, slightly savoyed leaves. This winter gardening standout has an extended harvest period gardeners love.


Illustration By Linda Cook

When we think of eating homegrown food during the cold season, we often think of staples such as potatoes squirreled away in the root cellar, or of vegetables such as winter squash stashed in a cool, dry place. But many gardeners are discovering the joys of harvesting fresh produce all winter long, which allows for feasts of cold-hardy crops that are just-picked and just right for the time of year. According to Jodi Lew-Smith of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., the seed-buying season used to be January, February and March. “Now there’s also a surge in June, July, August and into September for fall-planted crops,” she says. Eating from the garden is just too pleasant to give up simply because the temperature — and the snow — may have fallen.

I don’t mean growing tomatoes in January. Fruiting crops no doubt need long, sunny days and warm conditions to complete their delicious arc of softening, deepening in color and perfectly ripening. Winter fare is about leaves, stems and roots, which mature more and more slowly as the weather cools and the days shorten. Better still, winter vegetables sweeten with the cold. If you’ve ever tasted a winter-pulled carrot or winter-cut spinach, you’re familiar with the treasures winter gardening can bring.

With my husband, Eliot Coleman, I run Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, where winter production is a key part of our business. Over the past two decades, we’ve built, trialed and collected data on many hoop house designs and crop-protection methods. We’ve also tested many crops — and multiple varieties of those crops — to discover what grows best in winter.

Climate Considerations

So, should a winter gardener grow different crops depending on her climate? Not necessarily. Winter has always been a good season for a wide array of crops in the southern states, and in the northern tier of the United States, you can grow the same crops if you use a winter-protection device to broaden your garden’s productive season. This might be a cold frame, a simple greenhouse, the quick-hoop system, or just a layer or two of floating row cover, often called Reemay. All of these season-extension devices capture some of the earth’s natural warmth, especially at night, and block the chilling, drying effect of wind.

At any latitude in the United States, there’s enough daylight to grow a wide range of winter crops. A recent MOTHER EARTH NEWS survey on winter gardening turned up a surprising number of cold-season gardeners in places where weather would present a challenge, such as Ontario and Wisconsin, as well as many in unsurprising locales, such as Texas and Southern California, where an outdoor garden can keep on truckin’ with a simple shift of the planting scheme (see Real-World Gardening Tips for tons of advice from our survey-takers). While in the Northeast we think of the year’s “second spring” starting around August, warmer southern areas can shift that date by a couple of months to around October, when fall temperatures will still be high enough to achieve germination and allow plants to reach maturity.

Winter growing has taken off in the commercial sphere, too, which helps farmers with short growing seasons make a living year-round. But home gardeners have an advantage: They don’t have to produce uniform, cosmetically perfect vegetables on any set schedule for a competitive market. In short, home gardeners can better roll with winter’s punches than large-scale producers can. Home-scale winter growers can experiment with the timing of their crops, sowing new ones whenever a space, no matter how small, becomes vacant. They can try lots of varieties until they find the ones that grow best — and taste best — for them. The seven well-tested crops and varieties illustrated here are some of my absolute, tried-and-true favorites.

annesia
11/12/2014 12:05:17 PM

For all of these winter crops, is it best to have them planted at the beginning of October or can we start planting them in November and would they grow nicely during December and January?


sge21
11/3/2013 7:05:55 AM

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gardeningeditor
10/14/2013 6:00:02 PM

It was such a joy to work with Barbara Damrosch on this article. She knows her stuff! I can't wait to try some of these varieties in my own garden. Has anyone ordered seeds for any of these varieties yet? - Shelley Stonebrook, Senior Editor


beverbee
10/4/2013 11:20:43 AM

EdO :)


edo
10/4/2013 7:59:48 AM

I believe that Mother Earth News has printed some excellent articles on natural constipation remedies. Perhaps they may be useful.


gregm
10/4/2013 6:30:58 AM

If you ever want me to purchase more than the basic subscription, perhaps you need to pick writers without a political agenda. Having the writer say "her" instead of something neutral such as the or their is a turn off.






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