Winter Gardening – Myth and Reality


Who doesn’t love luscious veggies and fruits in the wintertime? And we all have visions of dollar signs dancing in our heads when we think about buying them in the winter. We see those same dollar signs when we think of growing them ourselves, in a greenhouse. Because you’d surely have to HEAT that greenhouse, to get good stuff in the middle of winter!

Some common misconceptions about greenhouses lead most people to feel that it is too costly to buy one or build one, and too costly to operate one, and that the results are even then, so chancy that it is not worth the investment. They feel that it is not worth having a greenhouse when it is only used to extend the season by a month or two on either end of the gardening season.

Those ideas are completely false! A greenhouse can in fact, reward you through the entire winter with good things to eat, and it can do so at very little cost beyond the initial investment.

Actually, the truth is that many vegetables can be grown in a greenhouse, or even without a greenhouse, in the middle of the winter, in every state in the US. Even Alaska. Ok, not ALL of Alaska… but some of it.

There are two factors which make it work:

1. Don’t try to grow tomatoes or strawberries in the winter. If you do, you will need heat. Don’t try to grow heat loving plants. This will only cost you huge amounts. Choose plants which naturally do well in the winter. There are a bunch of them, and you can grow them in a variety of ways, even if you don’t have a greenhouse, in most areas of the US.

2. Protect your crops from the wind, and use coverings that help hold warmth. Many plants can stand temps well below freezing if they are protected from wind. As long as your area gets enough sun, you can probably raise crops successfully in an unheated greenhouse.

Now, lest you think this is some sort of radical new idea, or hype that just won’t work, let’s give you a little history…

This is traditional gardening. This is how people survived the winter in the middle ages. It has been practiced for centuries, and still is used prevalently in France. Just look up the definition of the term “bell jar”. The art was lost to the US, partly because of the market culture that developed here. But it still works here, and has been proven to work even in Maine.

You don’t really even need a greenhouse. You can do it with coldframes, tunnels (plastic over wire hoops), or even floating row covers (lightweight fiber cloth) in milder climates. In severe climates, you use a combination of methods, to give two, or even three layers of covering – a double walled greenhouse or tunnel, with a row cover directly over the plants. You can even purchase an inexpensive rack style grow-house for less than $50, with four shelves, to get started on the cheap if you want a greenhouse (you can throw a quilt over it in the winter to keep it insulated on especially cold nights).

It really works. We have seedlings coming up right now under a floating row cover. It is about two months too late to plant a winter garden in Oklahoma, dipping well below freezing several times a week now, yet our plants are thriving – we decided we’d rather plant late and have small crops than none at all, and it looks like we won’t have cause to regret that decision.

So what did we plant? We planted mostly things that do well in the cold anyway. Crops that were developed to grow in the winter, or to thrive in colder temps.

We have planted a mesclun mix, two varieties of lettuce, and spinach. We have cabbage, broccoli, beet, collard, dill, and some other greens to plant as soon as the walls are onto the greenhouse. I also planted alfalfa, which we’ll let grow a few inches tall, and then harvest for the chickens (it is worth it to me to keep some crops in the greenhouse for the animals, because they give us other food that we need) – I’ll do the same with wheatgrass, which grows well in cool soil.

There are other plants that grow well in cool temps also – peas, arugula, endive, raddichio, miner’s lettuce, corn salad, and many others. I don’t happen to care for the pungent ones like arugula and endive, but look forward to trying corn salad.

This kind of crop will grow well without any heat at all, as long as it is given sufficient protection. In the event that you feel heat IS needed, you can use raw compost (fill the floorspace between your planting pots with compost, or put it around the outside of the greenhouse), or a small woodburner (even a small fire will keep things above 15 degrees until the sun comes up, which is all that is needed). When things get cold, just add another layer of protection – row covers over your plants inside the greenhouse or inside the coldframe, or a coldframe inside a greenhouse, etc.

These techniques keep the investments that you make constrained to primarily reusable items, instead of pouring money into the cost of heat. Most things will germinate as long as the soil gets warm at least for part of the day, and does not freeze. They do germinate and grow as seedlings better in the late summer and early fall than they do in the winter. But as long as you can meet that criteria, they’ll even do it later than you thought. They’ll just do it slower.

Plants grow more slowly in the winter than they do in the summer. The cooler it gets, the slower they’ll grow. That means they’ll consume less moisture also – so you won’t need to water often. When you do, you’ll want to make sure the water dries before the temperatures drop too cold at night, because it can cause more damage if they are wet and then the water freezes.

The real key to making it work, is one that we’ve been trying to infuse into everything we do in our farming efforts: Work with nature, not against her. When you do, you are letting nature do the majority of the work, while you just nudge it along to reap the harvest, instead of fighting against her, expending unreasonable resources, for a mediocre result.

Once you get winter crops growing, you’ll be surprised at what you harvest. Often, the plants are small, but they taste wonderful. Nothing beats the flavor of sweet green cabbage leaves, pulled from young cabbage plants in December. You’ve never tasted tangy flavorful cabbage like that – not a hint of sulfur in it! If you try it in the springtime, you’ll be sadly disappointed, because that flavor only comes from cabbage that is grown in the cold.

So if you want fresh veggies in the wintertime, don’t think that they need to be shipped in from Chile. You can grow them in your own back yard, if you select the right veggies, and protect them in the right way.

Of course, you may spend a WHOLE LOT more on salad dressing…

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.