Growing vegetables in winter: A beginner’s guide
It’s that time of year when my garden is starting to change. Vegetables start to slouch and don’t look as fresh as they used to. Late summer is traditionally the beginning of the end of the growing season for a lot of people. But, perhaps you’ve heard about growing vegetables in winter too?
Growing vegetables in winter is both difficult and quite easy at the same time. Winter is, of course, a challenging time with plenty of risks involved. But this time of year can also provide us with a lot of food! And if we keep growing in winter, we might not need to give up on our hobby for large parts of the year either. Growing vegetables in winter is actually really fun! I’ll go through everything a beginner needs to know in this series about growing vegetables in winter. This is you get started!
Growing vegetables in winter – the basics
Most people get very skeptical when they hear about growing vegetables in winter. After all, everyone knows that vegetables won’t grow this time of year, right? Well, you’re technically not wrong. You might be able to grow in winter too though with the help of some heat and light. You’ll need to get the right tools and equipment to make this happen though, and that might not be realistic for most people. But what you can do is to focus on hardy vegetables that can take the darkness and the cold temperatures.
Growing a large supply of hardy vegetables you can start harvesting in late fall, winter and early spring means that you become one step closer to self-sufficiency, all year round. Read more about how to become self-sufficient in vegetables here: Self-sufficiency: Growing a lot of vegetables
So, you need to pick hardy vegetables that can withstand the cold, temperature changes, rain or snow, darkness and possible also pests.
You also need to choose the right spots with great care. The most protected locations are the best. I’ve noticed that you have a much bigger chance of succeeding growing vegetables in winter when you do it in several different spots at the same time. This minimizes the overall risks.
Another key aspect of growing vegetables in winter is to grow a lot of them. I guarantee you that you’ll go through them in no time. There’s usually plenty of room in the beds in wintertime, so don’t be too stingy.
Growing vegetables in winter is actually quite easy. You don’t need to supervise the progress as closely as you would in summer. The plants are low-growing, hardy and grow slowly when it’s cold. You can prepare most of the work already in summer, and you don’t need to do very much work except for the actual harvesting.
Leave the vegetables be
The simplest way to grow vegetables in winter is to simply leave the hardy vegetables in the soil when the temperatures outside start to fall. Play it cool and leave your parsnip, Jerusalem artichokes, winter carrots, winter potatoes, common salsify, black salsify, Chinese cabbage, chard, savoy cabbage, leek and winter lettuces outside. Harvest when you need to, but leave the rest to adjust to the cooler temperatures. The vegetables might start to look a bit worse for wear, but this is expected. Having a ready supply of fresh, homegrown vegetables is a real treasure when winter comes and it’s cold and miserable outside. It’s of course also very rewarding to know that eating fresh home-grown produce in the middle of winter is not only a faint possibility but very doable!
Look out for temperature changes
The vegetables that can grow quite late in the season are generally quite good with colder temperatures but dislike temperature changes. That’s why, contrary to what many think, growing vegetables in winter might not at all be easier in a location further south. Of course, every garden has its own eccentricities and it’s hard to generalize. You simply need to try it and see what works for your garden. When vegetables succumb due to rapid changes in temperature, they often start to rot quite quickly, either in or above the soil. Using a row cover might help even out the differences in air and soil temperatures, but this usually only works for a limited time.
If you want to start overwintering your vegetables, you might want to start planning for this already in spring. Sow a bit more than you had originally thought so there’s enough for late fall and winter too. You might run out of vegetables to experiment with when it starts to get cold, so make sure to plan for this.
Tips and tricks
If you want to be able to harvest vegetables in cold weather, it might be a good idea to protect the soil around your root vegetables to make sure that the ground frost doesn’t go to deep. Put a thick layer of straw or leaves over the beds when it starts to get colder. This will prevent the frost from spreading too quickly.
Sow new seeds
The next step you might want to try is to sow new seeds in late summer. You can start harvesting these new vegetables later in the fall, winter or early spring. It’s so simple, I think every gardener should try it!
The best vegetables to start experimenting with are fast-growing leafy greens. You sow them in summer, they grow quickly in the fall and will produce a harvest when the summer vegetables start to give up.
If you’re lacking space in your kitchen garden, you can also sow all of your winter leafy greens in plug trays and plant them when there’s more space available.
You will want to start with the vegetables that grow quickly and rarely cause any headache. Winter lettuce (or mache) is the perfect choice. All of the seeds start to germinate at around the same time, they grow quickly and you can sow them in tight rows. They are also very cold-resistant. And tasty too of course! Growing cabbages is also a good alternative, but they are a bit harder to grow since they very often get infested with worms. You won’t have too many issues in late fall but the plants are a lot more vulnerable in summer. Make sure to protect the cabbages with some row cover or something similar in order to keep them healthy. If you can do this, you might very well be able to succeed with cabbages in winter too.
It might be a good idea to sow your seeds in large trays with enough room for many little plants in a small space. You can get up to 150 little plants with very little work, simply put them in the beds when the time is right. This works really well with cabbages. There are so many different ones you could try, for example pak choi, komatsuna, kailaan, mizuna, tatsoi are a few examples. Just put them in a large tray and protect it with some fabric. Cabbages will germinate at about the same rate no matter the kind, and you can plant them all at the same.
The best vegetables to grow in winter
Prepare your soil
Contrary to popular belief, a lot of vegetables actually do very well in fall. The temperature gets cooler and the air and soil are nice and moist. We see a lot less insects and weeds at this time of year too.
Many of the vegetables suitable for a late harvest are leafy greens that grow a lot during late summer and fall. They need nutritious soil to develop properly. That’s why it’s so important to fertilize the soil in preparation for the winter season. You might want to make it a habit to always fertilize your beds outside, pallet collars and greenhouses right after harvest. The best way of doing this is to dig down material that will be composted. This will increase the amount of humus and nutrients in the soil. Use bokashi compost, plant parts from your garden or manure. The worms that get to work on the dug-down material will produce high-quality soil the plants simply love.
You might also want to add some liquid fertilizer for an extra boost. You could for example pee in a bucket and dilute it with water (1/10.) Water the soil a few days before you’re planning on sowing or planting. Use both regular water and liquid fertilizer until the soil is nice and moist. The seeds will grow much better in moist soil
After you have dug down the different fertilizers and covered it all with a layer of soil, you have a great surface where you can start sowing your seeds. If you want to grow vegetables in winter, this is a much better method than to simply cover with plant parts or manure.
Protect the crop
Greenhouses and pallet collar beds with lids on top are the best spots for growing vegetables in winter. But you can, of course, do it successfully in other locations too. Remember that a raised bed will provide you with better starting conditions than a ground level bed. A frame will protect your crops against cold winds, a simple row cover or a plastic lid on top of your cultivation box will make it a few degrees Celsius warmer when it gets cold outside. Take a look at the spots you’ve chosen and try to stick to the ones you think will stay thawed the longest. It’s, of course, a plus if they are close to your house. It’s so much more convenient to have your vegetables close a hand when it’s getting so cold that you don’t want to spend too much time outside (here in Scandinavia at least).
I’d recommend that you start growing your winter vegetables in your greenhouse and/or polytunnels. Greenhouses are great, but I think that polytunnels are even better. The plastic insulates better than glass, and the climate in the tunnel is usually a bit more stable than in a greenhouse. A regular greenhouse doesn’t have any heat sources in winter either. So when it’s very cold up here in the north, the temperatures outside and in the greenhouse differ with just a few degrees. The biggest plus is that the vegetables are protected against wind, snow, and rain.
The vegetables will do best in the greenhouse beds. A large amount of soil will help keep the temperature more stable than if you decide to grow your winter vegetables in pots. But growing in pots usually works well too!
An important thing to remember before the cold season is that there are many ways to protect your vegetables in the polytunnel. You’ll want to give them the best possible chance of surviving winter after all. Every single layer you cover your vegetables with will improve the temperature with a few degrees Celsius. That’s the equivalent of an entire zone for us here in Sweden, we have eight of them here. You could, for example, build a little tunnel inside your greenhouse, and grow cabbage leaves in raised pallet collar beds (covered with fabric and a plastic lids) in there. This will provide your vegetables with all the protection they might need and the soil won’t freeze, even though it might get quite cold at night.
You need to air out your greenhouses and polytunnels from time to time to get rid of excess condensation. Condensation paired with frozen soil means a lot of moist on the leaves, which might lead to an infestation of grey mould. Don’t worry too much about the low temperatures, all of the vegetables have been chosen very carefully because they can take the cold. Excess moist might, on the other hand, be a very real problem, so make sure to open your doors and windows during the days to air them out properly. You should always water on the soil and not the plants too, just to be on the safe side.
Cheat sheet: Winter sowings
Pick seeds that you can put in cold soil
Wait until it’s cold before you start sowing
Water by putting soil on top
Harvest in early spring
What you sow in summer is usually harvested in late fall, winter and early spring. You might, for example, be able to harvest leafy greens and root vegetables. The vegetables you sow in spring will produce a harvest in summer, which leaves you with a gap in April-May when your garden will start to look a bit empty. You can solve this problem simply by sowing new seeds in winter too. Sow your seeds outside in cold (or even frozen) soil.
You can do these winter sowings anywhere you want, outside and in your polytunnel/greenhouse. In pallet collar beds and pots.
Many of the vegetables we grow most of can be sown in winter, despite the cold. I like growing lettuce, spinach, small kale leaves, dill, parsley, summer carrot, arugula and pak choi. The best thing might be to grow the vegetables in tight rows, since this makes it a lot easier to get rid of any weeds in between. You could also scatter-sow your seeds in large or smaller “blocks”. You usually won’t need to water your seeds when you sow them, all you need to do is add a layer of snow on top.
The seeds will germinate when the soil is warm and moist enough. Most people who sow in winter think that the vegetables germinate earlier than the regular spring sowings, that the plants get very hardy and produce a much earlier harvest. Spinach sown in January, growing in February in your polytunnel will then be ready for harvest already in April.
Take a chance!
Growing vegetables in winter might feel like a daunting task, but I definitely think you should give it a try. Wouldn’t it be just amazing to be able to harvest all the ingredients to a home-made salad in February? You really don’t need that much to get started and I really hope that you’ll consider taking that first step. If you feel insecure, just start with something small. If you want to sow in summer and harvest in fall, I would recommend that you try winter lettuce. The vegetable I think is easiest to overwinter is Jerusalem artichoke. And the wintersown spinach can be truly spectacular too!
Good luck growing vegetables in winter!