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Growing a Winter Vegetable Garden

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Does the fall and impending winter have you a bit sad about the end of the gardening season? Chin up! The climate where I live actually makes gardening all winter long completely possible. Does this mean heirloom tomatoes in December? Not exactly; though one of my fellow Master Gardeners was able to eat a Christmas Eve tomato sandwich a few years ago due to a well tended plant moved indoors. But how can all gardeners enjoy a vegetable garden all winter?

How to grow a winter vegetable garden

So, if tomatoes and those other hot-weather-loving veggies are out, what can a gardener grow in the winter? That all depends on what your goals are for the winter garden.

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Do you want to have food to harvest and eat, or are you looking to have a low-maintenance cover that can build up your soil for the upcoming spring? Whatever your winter gardening goals, there’s something to grow for every gardener!

Winter Vegetable Garden Favorites

Fall and winter gardening is my favorite for several reasons. First, there are significantly less pests in the winter. Grubs have gone underground; vine borers have worn out their welcome, and mosquitoes are fewer and farther between. Secondly, when gardening in winter, it takes more than two seconds to work up a sweat. Not true for the spring and summer garden. 

So, what is a gardener to grow in the winter when chances are frost are frequent? For those gardeners wanting to have fresh food at their fingertips this winter, here are some cool weather favorites. Some of them actually taste better after a frost or two!

fall lettuces in a porch planter
Fall lettuces in a porch planter.

Many of these cool weather crops could also be grown in containers if you’d like less work than a full garden. (Find out how to build a self-watering planter from a galvanized bucket perfect for lettuce!)

Also be on the lookout for cabbage moths (white with a black dot on each wing), who also love many of the brassicas listed above. If you see these moths flying around, check out my article on How to Get Rid of Cabbage Worms (and prevent them)!

Set it and Forget it Winter Gardening

For those who like to take a full break during the winter, there are still options for your garden. Some vegetables can take all winter and spring to grow, and others can grow untouched, only to be cut and turned into the soil come spring time.

Both of these low-maintenance options will require minimal work, but will still give a gardener good things to look forward to in spring.

For a spring/summer crop that requires no work during the winter consider some choices from the allium family. These crops are the crock pot of gardening… set them and forget them. 

Popular Winter Allium Choices:

garlic growing in our front flower beds
Garlic growing in our front flower beds.

These alliums will grow all winter long and then are harvested and cured in the late spring/early summer. 

Winter Garden Cover Crops

Using cover crops is another way to grow all winter long without necessarily needing to harvest. Cover crops can help build up your soil in the winter and provide a source of food for your family, as well as other creatures great and small in your backyard ecosystem.

These winter cover crops will also help cut down on the weeds that can grow in a dormant winter garden, and what gardener doesn’t want less weeds? 

Having a soil test done by your local Cooperative Extension office is the best way to determine what cover crop would work best for your garden. These soil tests are free in the winter, and provide valuable information about the levels of phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen in your garden soil.

Once you have your results in hand, determine if your garden soil needs a legume cover crop that would provide needed nitrogen, or perhaps a non-legume crop that could instead build up your soil in other ways. (Read about how to build up your garden soil.)

If your soil doesn’t specifically need a healthy dose of more nitrogen, then a combination of legume and non-legume cover crops would be a safe bet. Here are some favorite winter cover crops:

collard green cover crop in a raised bed
Collard Green cover crop in a raised bed

For cover crops, be sure you are able to turn the crop back into the soil come late winter/early spring. 

Growing a garden all winter long really is possible in our moderate climate. Even an occasional snow isn’t enough to hold back many of the cool weather vegetables.

If you would like to take your gardening even further this winter, consider using a cold frame or a small greenhouse to expand what you’re able to grow in the coldest months of the year. If you’ve decided to take a gardening break this winter, that’s okay too. Enjoy your rest, because spring will be here before you know it!

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