By now many vegetable gardens are offering an abundance of fruit and vegetables to harvest, preserve, and enjoy. Sowing more seeds is often the last thing on a gardener’s mind. But July to September is a great time to plant crops that will see you through the winter.
While many crops won’t grow during winter’s coldest temperatures (say goodbye to melons, tomatoes, squash, and peppers, for example), many vegetables will tolerate and even thrive on the cooler temperatures that come with fall and winter.
A good benchmark to remember is that if your winter temperatures routinely drop below 25 F (- 4 C), you’ll need protection for your plants. But before that, there’s still time to plant crops that can help get you through the winter.
What is winter gardening?
When gardeners talk about growing food for the winter, they’re generally talking about several different things:
- Planting enough crops in late summer and fall to harvest throughout the winter.
These late-sown crops reach maturity before the cold hits, but they hold well in the garden so you can harvest them when the rest of your crops has long tapered off. They won’t usually grow much during these colder temperatures, but they will stay in good condition for eating fresh. That means you need to grow enough to harvest without regrowth. Examples of commonly grown plants in this category include root vegetables, winter lettuces, Asian greens, parsley, peas, kale, and spinach.
- Planting short season crops late in the regular gardening season to eat before temperatures plummet.
As the beds in your garden empty from summer harvests, those vacancies leave opportunities for quick-growing crops that you can eat before the cold sets in. Anything that grows in 3-6 weeks can fall into this category, such as radishes, tendril peas, lettuces, turnip, arugula, and mustard greens.
- Using tools and techniques to protect crops so you can grow all winter long.
If you have a way to make your season’s heat last longer, such as a greenhouse, cloche, or row cover, you can extend the time when your plants actually grow. Many of the plants listed above will grow longer and more vigorously if protected by one or two layers of cover.
- Planting slow growing crops to harvest in late winter or early spring.
In this case, your crops enter the winter not yet full grown. As the days shorten and the temperatures drop, these overwintering crops go dormant. Then, when the calendar changes and the days begin to lengthen, they start growing again, adding to the growth they put on in fall. Overwintered crops are usually ready for harvest very early, about the same time you start planting next season’s crops. They don’t usually need winter protection and include onions, cauliflower, garlic, and some types of broccoli.
With so many options available, it’s often best to approach the winter gardening season with a variety of strategies. Plant some vegetables that will mature quickly, others that will hold well in your garden beds, and still others that will overwinter and begin growing again when the days lengthen.
What winter vegetables can you plant right now?
Planting times vary depending on your location, but a general rule is that in the northern part of the country, most winter crops get planted in late July and August. In the southern US, extend that window as far as October.
Here are our top recommendations for vegetables to grow this winter.
Winter vegetables to grow outdoors
Getting these vegetables to a reasonable size before the first frost means you can harvest them as long as they remain accessible. You can also overwinter some varieties for that late winter or early spring harvest.
Plant beets 6 to 8 weeks before your first expected frost. Harvest as baby greens or leave in the ground to mature into delicious, vitamin-rich roots. In most locations, beets can stay in the ground all winter if mulched when very cold weather hits.
Slow growing but delicious, broad beans will grow through the winter months if planted in mid to late fall and staked in areas with lots of snow. Harvest in early spring when the pods fatten.
One of the easiest crops to grow, garlic generally goes into the ground in mid to late fall and gets harvested in midsummer. Plant with lots of compost, and add mulch for protection from weeds and weather.
With so many cabbage varieties to choose from, you can harvest this pungent garden vegetable from summer right on through to spring. Sow overwintering varieties in July and August (even later in warmer areas) and protect against winter pests with a floating row cover if necessary in your area. If you notice growth slowing down, add some finished compost around the plants and water well.
To harvest carrots in winter, plant in late July or early August and permit them to grow until they reach a large enough size for eating. Hold in the garden over the fall and winter months, harvesting slowly enough so you can make them last. Carrots won’t generally get much bigger after the temperatures drop, but they will hold well in the soil for many months. A fresh carrot harvested in December is one of the best Christmas treats.
Kale is one of the easiest plants to grow and cold weather only sweetens its flavor. For a winter harvest, plant a generous amount in slightly alkaline soil in early to mid August. Kale will usually survive freezing temperatures, but you can protect the leaves from heavy snowfall if you want to prevent breakage.
Onions are another crop that will overwinter well—providing you choose overwintering varieties. Lengthening days will kickstart their growth in late winter, making them ready for a late spring harvest. Transplant seedlings into your garden by late August and protect with straw mulch or floating row covers if temperatures dive below – 10 F (- 23 C).
Plant peas outdoors until mid-August for a fall harvest. With some protection, peas will also overwinter and begin growing again in spring in warmer areas. One favorite is the parsley pea, grown for its green tendrils to add to salads. Grow this pea variety for harvesting before the frost hits, or provide protection to extend its harvest into winter.
Winter crops to grow under cover
There’s no question that greenhouses, raised garden covers, and other forms of cover offer the gardener some of the best return on their money—and winter gardening is where these tools really prove their worth. The following vegetables will grow outdoors until hard frosts appear. Then they need protection to extend the harvest.
This nutty flavored green has the characteristic oak leaf shape that is now prevalent in so many ‘spring’ mixes. But arugula will grow even better in cooler weather. If protected from frost, it can grow all winter long. Plant in successive sowings two weeks apart beginning six weeks before your first expected frost. As temperatures approach freezing, cover with a cloche or floating row fabric. Arugula also thrives in a greenhouse.
Bok choy is another quick-growing green that thrives in cooler weather. Sow in August and September every 2 to 3 weeks (plants will grow and go to seed quickly). Protect with a floating row cover or cloche when heavy frosts and extreme temperatures threaten. Bok choy is high in calcium and a great addition to winter smoothies.
Without the worry of hot temperatures causing them to bolt, winter lettuces can thrive in late summer and early fall. It’s seeding time that can be tricky, since August plantings can still be peak summer temperatures. Solve this problem by planting in seeding trays in a cooler area and then transplanting when the weather cools, or by using shade cloth if temperatures soar. Soon enough the season will shift and bring lettuces just what they need: cooler days and ample moisture. As the cold weather approaches, cover with cloches or floating row fabric. Lettuce planted in a greenhouse usually does the best of all.
Sow in mid to late August for fall and winter harvests. Because parsley forms a taproot, it’s best to plant this tasty green in soil that has been dug deeply and amended with compost. Use the fresh leaves all winter for vitamin-rich greens. To prolong your harvest, choose the outside leaves when picking and cover with a cloche when the weather dips below freezing.
While difficult to grow in the heat of summer, spinach thrives in cool weather and will continue to grow new leaves even with lower light. It is also hardy enough to grow without cover until mid-October in many locations, so you can plant it later in the season (August to September), allow it to grow outside, and then cover it before the first frosts.
Like spinach above, chard is a fairly hardy plant that will tolerate cooler temperatures into October. And while it does need protection as cold weather approaches, its leaves can take a bit of freezing and still retain their flavor—as long as you let them thaw on the plant before harvesting. Sow in early August and keep moisture consistent for the best growth.
More winter gardening tips
Once you have chosen your crops, there are some other considerations that can help improve your chances for success during cold, wet weather.
- Start seeds in trays
If you live in the northern states or Canada, winter gardening often requires careful timing to make the best use of your planting window. Starting seeds in trays can give your seedlings a jump on the season. When a bed becomes vacant in your garden, transplanting a healthy seedling into the ground saves you a few weeks growing time.
- Grow in raised garden beds
In some parts of the continent, wet weather can inhibit plant growth just as much as cold temperatures. Raised beds lift your garden soil above the soggy ground and help ensure the best drainage possible. They also warm more quickly come springtime.
- Protect against wind
We’ve talked about frost and snow, but wind can often damage plants during the winter. Creating a windbreak, planting in a sheltered area, or using polytunnels or row covers for wind can give your plants added protection.
- Use cover crops on dormant beds
Cover crops restore soil nutrients and control weeds, erosion, and compaction in your soil. Once you’ve harvested a bed, think about sowing a cover crop rather than leaving soil bare until spring.
Growing and harvesting vegetables all winter
Despite colder temperatures and shorter days, winter provides a gardening opportunity suitable for many hardy vegetables. Consult your local seed companies for varieties suitable for your area and get planting!