Coaxing Fresh Vegetables From The Garden All Winter Long
Autumn typically signals the end of home grown vegetables from the garden, but with a little ingenuity you can harvest garden fresh produce well into the winter months. My Central Pennsylvania garden continues to supply fresh vegetables during the fall and winter when most gardeners in my growing region are content to dream about next summer’s bounty. Read on to discover simple tricks that will fortify your garden against the onslaught of frigid weather.
Fall often delivers brief cold spells with a few days of frost filled mornings, sandwiched between weeks of milder, frost-free weather. The problem is that a single touch of frost can wipe out every tender annual growing in the garden. Fortunately, a little protection will enable frost sensitive vegetables and herbs to survive a cold snap, and reward the resourceful gardener with an opportunity to enjoy extended harvests.
Something as simple as the transparent, fleecy, floating row covers used to shield plants from harmful insects can also prevent frost damage. Row covers trap the warmth that radiates up from the earth much like the way that a cloud cover holds temperatures and prevents frost from forming. Row covers offer a few degrees of protection, keeping tender annuals safe from light frost. Use the thicker grade covers for maximum benefit.
Late summer is the ideal time to sow cold tolerant vegetables that will flourish in the fall and endure cold weather without complaint. Examples of hardy vegetables for fall gardening include: kale, spinach, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, Brussels Sprouts, kohlrabi, turnips, cabbages, carrots, oriental greens, rutabagas, leeks, and winter lettuces.
Once freezing conditions arrive, even cold hardy crops will appreciate some protection if they remain in the garden. Cardboard boxes and fruit baskets can provide shelter to individual plants, while old sheets, blankets, and heavy plastic tarps will protect entire rows or beds of plants. Apply the coverings in the evening when freezes are forecast and remove them the following morning after the sun warms the air.
Another effective solution is to use a commercial variety of cloche, or to set up a portable cold frame over the garden bed. Cloches include the heavy glass, bell shaped jars, or variously styled and shaped rigid plastic devices.
One style of cold frame consists of a tubular frame covered by a woven poly material with flaps for venting. You can also obtain sturdier cold frames made with aluminum framing and twin wall polycarbonate panels that lift up for venting. Regardless of the type of protection used to cover your plants you must remove it or provide venting during the day as temperatures rise.
Resourceful gardeners can combine a few discarded window sashes and bales of straw to create a simple makeshift cold frame. Just arrange the straw bales into a rectangular shape around a garden bed and lay the windows across the top to form an enclosed and insulated growing area. This setup will work great to keep a bed of leafy greens growing further into the winter.
Oddly enough, water can protect and insulate plants from the cold. Commercial orchards actually spray water and mist onto their trees to prevent frost damage.
In the home garden you can employ plastic gallon jugs filled with water to provide protection. Place the containers around plants, under floating row covers or tarps, and inside of your cold frames.
The water will absorb and store heat during the day and release it at night to provide warmth for your plants. You’ll get the best results by painting the jugs black so that they’ll absorb more energy from the sun during the day. Incredibly, even if the water in the container freezes, it will continue to release a significant amount of heat energy into the surrounding area.
Root cellars were once commonly used to store fruits and vegetables over the winter. These dark, underground storage areas with earth floors were designed to keep fresh produce in a state of hibernation. Crops such as potatoes, apples, rutabagas, turnips, beets, parsnips, and carrots would be stacked in baskets or crates. While cabbages, celery, endive, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, and leeks were lifted from the garden with their roots attached and placed upright, side by side, on the floor of the root cellar.
It’s amazing how the uprooted plants can maintain their quality and appearance for months with no sunlight, water, or nutrients, while standing on the cold, earth floor of the root cellar. Root cellars aren’t high on the list of options for home builders any more, but you can recreate the conditions using crawl spaces or unheated storage areas. Barrels or large containers sunk into the ground at an angle and insulated with straw and earth can also serve as improvised root cellars for storing fresh produce.
Certain vegetables will survive on their own in the garden through bitterly cold conditions. Leeks, kale, and collards frequently withstand harsh winters without any protection. Fall planted garlic and shallots will develop strong root systems in the fall, spend the winter underground, and then spring up at the earliest signs of the arrival of spring.
Many root crops including beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips can be left in the garden protected with a thick layer of shredded leaves or straw. You can then continue harvesting as needed, provided that the ground doesn’t freeze and prevent digging. Finish harvesting before spring arrives though, since quality will degrade once the roots resume growing and switch into seed production mode.
With proper planning and a little extra care you can easily grow and harvest vegetables beyond the normal spring and summer seasons. Simply implement a few of the ideas presented in this article and you’ll soon enjoy your own home grown, fresh produce much longer than usual, possibly even year-round.
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