This post will help you grow winter garden plants that thrive in cold weather. These tips and tricks will also give you an early start toward your spring garden goals.
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To create a winter vegetable garden, you’ll need to consider these conditions
- Winterizing raised garden beds.
- Selection and care for overwintering crops.
- How to plant perennials in the fall.
- Using cold frames, greenhouses, hoop houses and agribon to extend your growing season.
- Use mulching and cover crops to care for your soil.
- Create windbreaks to create a stable environment for winter gardens.
- Growing greens indoors.
A Word About Hardiness Zones
Stony Ridge Farm, where I live work, and play, is in Harpers Ferry, WV. Our USDA hardiness zone is 6a. We have even, four-season weather with the last frost in early May and the first frosts in mid-October.
We have been growing winter garden plants for 12 years now! The frost dates keep fluctuating and we never fail to plant our crop rotations around them.
Knowing your plant hardiness zone will allow you to tailor general garden task information to your specific climate. Click here to learn more.
Here’s a quick overview of plant hardiness zones. Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Use this information to tailor the information in this post to your specific climate.
Winterizing raised beds for winter garden plants
The first frost is passed, and it’s time to do some cleaning and organizing in your gardens. Add winterizing unused beds to your task list to get a jump on spring garden chores!
Why Winterize Raised Garden Beds?
The primary reason to winterize raised garden beds is to reduce or eliminate the threat of disease and pests the following growing season.
Yes, a clean bed is a satisfying site. It holds all the potential of spring. That vision is the immediate reward. Bugs, fungal spores, and other threats to your plants lurk in the mess of a fall garden bed. Eliminating those threats for a better growing season is the real motivation for winterizing raised garden beds.
For instance, the image below shows the lifecycle of the Japanese Beetle. Cleaning the garden bed and amending the soil can help eliminate hidden threats like these grubs.
Weed and Clean
Weed and clean. It seems that every garden task list I create for this blog has this one item listed again and again. It is essential to keep the garden weed-free and clean. Pull all weeds and trim the grass around your raised beds. Rake up all dead plant matter. Use a hand trowel to break up the top layer of soil. If the soil is deeply impacted, use a broad fork to dig deep into the bed and break up the soil.
Clean beds, whether they will be dormant during the winter months or growing a winter crop. Weeds around a winter crop can soak up all the moisture during a time of limited rainfall, especially if the bed is inside a hoop house or greenhouse.
Amend and Mulch
Adding high-quality organic compost and mulching the garden bed is our next step in winterizing the garden. Adding these elements to the garden beds allows the freezing and thawing of the winter months to break down the soil’s nutrients, making them more readily available to your seedlings come spring.
You can make your own compost using kitchen scraps and garden waste and add it to your raised beds come winter. I do this, but I never have enough compost for all my raised beds. I use a certified organic compost called Leafgro to supplement my compost needs.
It is important to use certified organic materials so that you know what is in your soil. Using poorly sourced supplements like a non-certified horse or cow manures runs the risk of having weed seed or agrochemicals in them. Gardening is hard work on its own without unwittingly adding troubles by using less than perfect products.
In the spring, I make my own potting mix, also using Leafgro. In trials, my seedlings grow twice as fast as with any leading market organic mix. This also adds much needed organic matter to the beds. My fall seedlings for winter crops are grown in it as well. Here’s the recipe.
Mulching works to suppress weeds and retain moisture. When you choose organic mulches, they add organic matter to the garden as they decompose. For many, when we think of mulching, we think of wood chips, but there are many other types of organic mulches appropriate for the kitchen garden.
Here is a list of my favorites with benefits and drawbacks:
- Hay: great for suppressing weeds and holding in moisture. It can add weed seed to the garden and may be contaminated with pesticides. Hay can build up excess potassium in the garden if used too frequently.
- Straw: also great for suppressing weeds and holding in moisture. It has a high carbon and adds a good bit of organic matter back into the garden. Straw is light in color and can help lower soil temperatures in the summer months. In my experience, straw has become so full of weed seed that I can no longer use it as a mulch. It is a perfect mulch, though, so I keep looking for a cleaner source in my county.
- Tree leaves: fallen leaves from my maple trees is my favorite fall mulch. I mow them over and then stack them high, up to a foot, on my raised beds. Be careful using oak leaves as they can make the soil acidic. Tree leaves are the perfect mulch for the garlic bed if you are planting overwintering crops.
- Chipped wood and bark: This heavy mulch is great for weed suppression. If a bed is particularly weedy, first place a cardboard layer over the bed, then cover with wood chip mulch. Very effective at eradicating weeds like wiregrass from raised beds. You can use the wood chip to create a mushroom garden, too!
- Sawdust: we used sawdust from our friend’s woodturning business as a mulch between raised beds. It has proven to be the best weed suppressant we’ve ever used. I would not use it on the beds themselves as it can deplete nitrogen as it decomposes. It also mats when it gets wet, making it waterproof.
Living Mulch or Cover Crops
Cover crops are seed mixes planted in the fall that restore basic nutrients and organic matter to the raised garden bed over the winter months. My favorite cover crop is crimson clover. There is a long list of cover crops that serve specific purposes like adding nitrogen or breaking up compacted soil. This is a vast and complicated topic, so I recommend reading this from Johnny’s Seed to learn more.
Simply plant your cover crop in the fall. In late spring, you mow and till the plants back into the soil.
Solarizing garden beds is a method of trapping radiant heat in the soil, allowing it to be inhospitable to weed seeds and pests.
Using a UV plastic film, you cover a damp and clean garden bed for the winter months. On those bright days, temperatures under the plastic can get above 99 degrees and passively help eradicate entrenched garden problems.
Solarization only works if the soil is moist, so on a warm winter day, I will pull back the plastic, add compost and mix with a hoe, hand water and recover the raised bed.
I absolutely love this method not only for winterizing raised garden beds but for establishing new ones. Read this post from Gardening Know How to learn more.
Selection and Care of Overwintering Crops as Winter Garden Plants
Plant garlic, shallots, and walking onions after the first frost. These winter garden plants bring a bit of green to an otherwise barren landscape.
They will slowly grow throughout the winter months and jump into full growth in the early spring. The shallots and garlic will be ready for harvest around the 4th of July. Harvest the walking onions anytime after they begin looking like a scallion.
Plant these over-wintering crops in a raised bed with rich, well-drained soil. Once you see the sprout of the plants, cover with leaf mulch for the winter. This will keep moisture in and weeds out and make your spring garden that much easier to manage.
Did you know that plants in the Allium family, like those mentioned above, are great at keeping pests out of your garden? Read more here!
Perennial Vegetable Crops
Perennial crops are those that grow year after year with one planting. They are perfect winter garden plants!
Overwintering crops are planted in the fall and are harvested late-spring and early summer. These crops are less labor-intensive and more bug resistant than the annual vegetable crops that commonly populate the kitchen garden.
You can install many perennial crops in October. Existing ones will need compost and mulching to get the most from their winter slumber—plant overwintering crops in October and November for a June-July harvest. Think berry and asparagus patches, neat rows of garlic and shallots, rhubarb and horseradish beds. At Stony Ridge Farm, we are dedicating more of our growing area to these crops. It’s a more sustainable approach to the market garden, given that Bob and I aren’t getting any younger!
Raspberries and Blackberries
For existing berry beds, be sure to trim raspberry and blackberry canes that are at least 2 years old each fall. We cut ours back to about 4 inches above the soil line. Then, we add organic compost to the soil and mulch to keep the weeds down.
To start a berry patch, you’ll need to use the winter months to do your research and plant in the spring. Plant the berries in a raised bed with rich, well-drained soil after the threat of frost has passed. You’ll want to trellis the plants as they grow. Do not cut back the canes of new berry plants until the second fall to let the roots get established.
Thin and weed your strawberry patch each fall. If you thin your strawberries in October, you can use the runners to establish a new bed. You can also use them to fill in bald patches in your existing beds. I have found that strawberries are remarkably resilient. I fertilize my strawberries in the spring.
Asparagus is one of those vegetables I love to show visitors. The stalks that we eat in the spring grow very tall and grassy once the harvest stops. This is new information to many people. They look at the asparagus bed in wonder.
Weed and nourish your asparagus bed each fall. After weeding, we add organic compost to the established asparagus bed. Install a new bed of asparagus in the spring. Yes, it really does take 3 years for the first harvest. This allows time for the roots to get well established. We’ll be creating a new bed in the spring as our current one has withered over time.
Harvest horseradish in the fall. Grate and ferment the root to enjoy its hot-tangy flavor throughout the year to come. Weed, add compost and a thin layer of mulch to the patch after your harvest. Remember, when harvesting, to leave enough root to keep the plant well established.
Did you know that horseradish leaves can help your fermented pickled stay crunchy? The level of tannins in the leaves is what does the trick!
Mint, oregano, sage, thyme, lovage are a few popular and tasty perennial herbs in the kitchen garden. These and many other herbs don’t need much more than a good weeding and mulching in October. Woody herbs like sage may benefit from being cut back after the first frost. Be sure to dry the clippings for your Thanksgiving recipes!
We’ll be harvesting and drying herbs this week. I seem never to grow enough, no matter how much I expand the herb garden.
You can get a second harvest of rhubarb if there’s been enough rain in late summer and early fall. Here’s a recipe for a rhubarb shrub. We’ll be making rhubarb bitters this month, too. The basic recipe is in the FREE 5-Day Food Preservation Bootcamp (Click to join. You’ll be glad you did!). If you are short on time, chop up the rhubarb and throw it into a ziplock bag to freeze until you have time to make a pie, shrub, bitters, or tarts!
Season Extension Technologies for winter Garden Plants
This quick little video offers an overview of the exact method I use to extend the season in my kitchen gardens. Check it out!
I also use some wire hoops and weights to hold down the agribon once the beds are completely turned over for winter crops. Here’s my kitchen garden in October 2018. It’s been warmer this year, so I still have summer crops growing and haven’t gotten this far. Probably by next week and I’ll update this post then.
For an extra layer of protection, I will often layer UV plastic over the beds during the coldest and darkest months, December-February. The risk of UV plastic is that on really sunny days, you can scorch your plants. Check them about once a week for temperature and moisture levels.
The larger hoop houses you see below are covered with UV plastic. Once the crops are in, they are covered with 1-2 layers of agribon.
Depending on your winter kitchen garden’s size and what you are growing, your infrastructure can be as simple or complicated as you have time and money to create and maintain.
DIY Potting Soil Mix | Easy Recipe
Check out this post on making your own potting mix. I use the large batch recipe to replenish my raised beds every year!
Our property has a kind of wind tunnel. The land around the house is high ground. Then, there is a quick descent to that are of the outbuildings and market garden. Behind the market garden, the land rises again to our very stony ridge!
This dip perfectly captures breezes and makes the garden a nice place to work in the summer. But, we have high winds in March and October, and the land captures the wind in an inhospitable way for those winter garden plants.
The previous owners did a great job of breaking the mostly northerly winds by planting trees. We have high stands of pines on the north end of the property and they do a great job as windbreaks.
There are areas around the various gardens that are still susceptible to wind damage and we manage that by stacking strawbales. I am considering building ornamental fencing to protect these areas as well.
The worst problem I have with wind is when I’m hardening off my seedlings in the spring. Seedlings are very susceptible to wind damage. You can lose months of work to one ill-planned windy day in the spring garden.
I found this video that might help you define your wind problems and solutions in the kitchen garden.
A Word About Wildflowers
It’s late-October, and I’ve just picked up a bunch of wildflower seeds on sale at the local nursery. I know we don’t think of wildflowers as winter garden plants, but it’s important to plant for pollinators, and winter can be the best time!
Wildflower seeds need exposure to freezes and moisture during the winter months to germinate fully come spring.
You can prepare a wildflower bed and scatter the seeds on the exposed soil in late fall or early winter.
I have a 3-acre pasture that we are allowing to grow into a prairie style meadow. I’ll be scattering the seeds across the area now that the annual mow is complete.
Use these links for detailed monthly garden tasks!
WANT TO REMEMBER THIS? SAVE THE WINTER VEGETABLE GARDEN GUIDE TO YOUR FAVORITE PINTEREST BOARD!
Growing Greens Indoors
No time for growing a fall garden? No problems!
Click here to learn how to grow your salad greens indoors. I go over sprouts, microgreens, shoots, and we even touch on outdoor spinach.
The Seasonal Living Framework
Seasonal wellness asks that we learn to trust nature and our bodies to guide our self-care practices. Whether learning the skill of handcrafting herbal teas or taking up a meditation practice, seasonal wellness is about the slow approach to making our wellbeing a priority.
Basically, nature-based wellness practices are contemplative. They need time set aside to experience moments in nature, and in our interior landscape. These practices can be solitary or in community, solemn or festive. They always bring us into direct contact with the present moment. They inspire an internal sense of purpose and peace.
If this resonates with you, I invite you to explore the Seasonal Living Framework with this post and the downloadable workbook.
There’s a party happening and we’re waiting for you to arrive!
We also gather over email once a week to focus on one specific garden, kitchen, or wellness topic in-depth, with lots of step-by-step how-to’s. The best way to jump into the email conversation is with the Seasonal Living Workbook, you can download it here and explore the seasonal living framework with an email course!
So much love and free information in one place, but it’s not the same without YOU!
Spinach, kale, and mache.
Garlic and shallots are planted in the fall for a late spring or early summer harvest.
Rhubarb, horseradish, and asparagus are excellent perennial vegetable crops.