Ways to Extend Your Harvest This Winter
Get the most out of your garden this winter with these simple tips.
Winter is a wonderful time to go to the movies, read a good book, or host a dinner party to show off your latest garden harvest. Yeah, that’s right, there is so much to be had from the winter garden that you and your friends can get together and celebrate a mid-winter Thanksgiving. But it will take a little planning and work before the cold arrives.
What to Grow
There are two categories of vegetables that can supply produce through the heart of winter. Cool weather root crops and cold tolerant leafy greens. The first key to a bountiful winter harvest is to get an early start. Root crops must be started by directly sowing seeds where the plants will grow to maturity, since they do not transplant well. In many cases, this means two months or more of pre-frost growth will be required for roots to achieve maturity. When mature, these crops can take a frost and remain viable below ground even if the tops get nipped. On the other hand, leafy greens transplant quite readily. If the transplants are fairly mature, they can be moved to the garden as space becomes available up to a couple of weeks before the first frost. Some of the fastest growing cold hardy greens may be directly sowed a few weeks prior to frost for harvest as early as a month or so later.
A vegetable garden that has been in production through the summer will require some attention before the ensuing winter veggies are planted. Remove weeds and debris from the previous crop, and turn in a generous amount of compost and/or manure (a two inch layer would be a good starting point). If the summer plot produced acid lovers like tomatoes or potatoes, lime may be needed for high quality greens. Taking soil samples to the county extension service for testing is the best way to be sure of pH and nutrient levels, the results will include necessary steps to improve the conditions for your desired crops.
When to Plant
To get the necessary head start before cold weather arrives, it is important to know your area’s average first frost date. When you have that date, use the information on the seed packet or plant label that shows how many “days to maturity” and count backwards that many days from the first frost date. That is the latest that the particular crop should be planted from seed. For especially cold hardy plants and those planted with extra protection from the cold, you may be able to cheat on this method a little bit.
The first line of defense against cold is mulch. Using a dark colored mulch, like black plastic, will help the soil retain daytime heat which is radiated to the plants at night. This can help extend that first frost date. Protection of mature root crops is as simple as covering them with a thick layer of mulch (leaves, straw, etc.) when extended freezing weather threatens. The goal here is to keep the “shoulders” of the roots, as well as the soil around them, from freezing.
Row covers, or frost blankets, are easy-to-use, removable blankets that work well for inconsistent light freezes. They can be placed over the garden as cold weather approaches, then removed when the threat is gone. Row covers are made of lightweight fabric that breathes, which helps avoid damage due to condensation freezing on foliage.
Cold frames and tunnels are the most long-term options for passive cold protection. Cold frames are small framed structures built into or just above the ground with a hinged lid on top for access. They are often used to harden off transplants, but they can also be used to grow crops. Tunnels are like unheated greenhouses, often framed with PVC, metal or wood, and covered with UV resistant plastic sheeting or corrugated plastic. Tunnels work well to cover larger areas of the garden, allowing the same plot to continue in production from spring through winter.
Using any of these devices will provide cold protection well into freezing temperatures, but the real magic happens when they are combined. If a row cover gives five degrees of protection and a tunnel gives ten, not only will the temperature be fifteen degrees warmer under a row cover inside a tunnel; but it will remain at the night time low temperature for a much shorter duration. This type of synergy allows the most cold hardy crops to not only survive the winter, but to grow and thrive, providing valuable and delicious produce for your mid-winter table.