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How to Plant a Cold-Weather GardenSeptember 29th, 2017 by
Very little compares to homegrown summer produce. If you’ve harvested the last of your late-summer bounty and have already started the countdown to spring planting, you may want to reconsider your timeline.
You’ve already pulled out your tomato cages and tilled in the spent plants (or hired a lawn care professional to do so), so why not try your hand at a few cold-weather crops in those empty planting beds?
If you’re not too keen on the idea of working in the garden in snow and freezing temperatures, don’t worry. You’ll do most of the heavy lifting in the late summer and early fall, when the weather is still pleasant (or stiflingly hot, if you’re here in Georgia). You will have to get out there in chilly temperatures, but you’ll be doing the fun part—harvesting!
Gardening in the off-season is a wonderful way to enjoy homegrown veggies all year. Cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, and leafy greens all do well in the chilly weather of late fall and winter, whereas fruit-producing plants like tomatoes, peppers, and berries need to wait for the warmer, sunnier months of late spring and summer.
Cold-hardy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard, carrots, and beets (and many similar crops) don’t require as many hours of warm sun, and they typically take longer than summer crops to grow to harvesting size.
As you prepare for your winter gardening adventure, scout your local garden supply store for the following plants:
Vitamin-rich leafy greens
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Lettuces, including radicchio and chicory
- Bok choy
Crunchy cruciferous veggies
- Brussels sprouts
Hearty, colorful roots
In most cases, the plant varieties you find at the garden supply store will be suited to your climate, but your county agricultural extension is an excellent resource for gardening advice and information specific to your area.
Successful Planting Tips
Planting in the fall is not much different than planting in the spring and summer. When you plant in transitional seasons, your area’s average first and last frost dates are very important. In the spring, planting before the last frost date can kill off fragile seedlings; planting too close to the first frost date in the fall can have the same effect.
Sound like an imperfect science? It definitely is.
No one has a weather-predicting crystal ball, and while I like to think that the sudden influx of caterpillars on my driveway is a sure sign of a nice, snowy winter (a rarity in the South!), you just never know exactly when the cold will arrive and stick around.
There are, however, some steps you can take to increase your chances of a successful harvest.
1. Do the math.
For your fall and winter garden, you’ll have to break out a pencil and paper (or, if you’re like me, a calculator). If you plant from seed rather than from started plants from a nursery, pay close attention to the average days each crop takes to mature. To determine the ideal planting time, subtract the time to maturity from the average first frost date.
2. Try starting seeds indoors.
Planting an entire garden from seed is an art, and started plants sometimes fare better in the long run. Your local garden supply store should have seed starter trays available for sale, or you can get creative and DIY your own with odds and ends from around the house.
3. Choose the right varieties.
Carrots are carrots, right? Not exactly. There are well over 100 carrot varieties available today, and some of them are better suited than others for chilly temperatures, getting sweeter and more delicious as winter sets in.
Cold-hardy carrots are only one example of easy-to-grow plants that prefer the fall and winter growing seasons. Since the goal of gardening is to not only grow your own produce, but to grow veggies and fruits that taste better than what you can find in the grocery store, do your research to find varieties of plants that are known to flourish in cold weather.
4. Make sure your soil is in good shape.
Rich soil is one of the most important keys to a successful garden, regardless of the season. Remember that crops take important minerals and nutrients from the soil each growing season, so you’ll likely need to incorporate amendments to meet the needs of your winter veggies.
A good rule of thumb is to pay attention to the soil’s texture. Since roots, water, and critters all need to make their way through the dirt, it should crumble in your hand, not clump up into a ball. If necessary (and it probably will be), beef up your garden with appropriate nutrient-rich additions for your soil, such as compost, aged horse or cow manure, bone meal, and bloodmeal.
If you’ve had trouble with getting a decent harvest out of your garden in the past, consider having a soil test done. While you can find home testing kits online and in garden supply stores, you’ll likely get better, more accurate results from a professional test conducted by your county agricultural extension.
How to Survive the Cold
Depending on your area’s climate and the crops you decide to grow, you may need to provide your garden with some shelter to ensure frost, snow, and ice don’t decimate your harvest. The best way to do this is by constructing cold frames or garden row covers.
What is a cold frame?
A cold frame is a simple structure that shelters plants from winter weather. To the untrained eye, a row of cold frames can look a lot like a row of storage boxes. You can purchase cold frame kits, or you can make your own from materials you probably already have around the house.
If you decide to go the DIY route, keep in mind that the goal of a cold frame is to trap light and heat as well as to provide cover from snow and ice. You’ll find plenty of cold frame designs in a quick web search, but try to keep things simple.
Here’s what you’ll need for a basic cold frame:
- A box (just the four sides; no top and no bottom) that will withstand rain, snow, and ice—in other words, no cardboard
- A clear lid—trimmed sheets of Plexiglas work well, as do salvaged windows or heavy-duty clear plastic
And that’s it—really!
The lid will need to be either hinged or removeable since you’ll need to tend to the plants inside. Also be sure to construct your cold frame so that the back wall is slightly taller than the front wall to discourage pooling water and heavy snow accumulation.
What is a garden row cover?
A garden row cover, also called garden fabric, is a length of special fabric that protects plants from winter weather, insects and pests, and excessive heat and sunlight. Some gardeners drape row covers over hoops strategically placed in the garden, while other simply drape the fabric directly over the plants.
You’ll find a variety of row cover weights at your local garden supply store. If your area tends to have fairly mild winters, for example, you might opt for a general-use fabric as opposed to something heavier and designed to provide more insulation from the cold.
The Bottom Line
Cold-weather gardening can be just as rewarding as gardening during the traditional spring and summer growing seasons. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be mindful of predicted frost dates as well as the number of days to maturity of your chosen crops.
- Make sure your garden’s soil is healthy and balanced.
- Purchase or build cold frames or row covers to shelter plants from ice and snow.
Fall and winter vegetables tend to grow a little more slowly than their warm-weather counterparts, but with care and some cover from extreme weather, you’ll have a bounty of healthy, colorful veggies to enjoy during the chilly winter months.