There are obvious reasons why winter seems like an unlikely and unfriendly time to tend a garden. Cold, for one, is neither plant nor farmer’s favorite state of being. Also there’s snow and ice and wind and relaxation and very short days to contend with.
That said, there is a lot to love about growing a winter garden—as long as you are prepared for it. So I’ll cover a few reasons why it’s not only possible to farm in the winter but fun, too.
What You Need
A winter garden is not—for most of us in most regions in the United States and Canada—simply an unprotected garden full of cold-hardy plants. Winter gardening takes a small amount of infrastructure such as an in-ground greenhouse or a low tunnels made out of hoops and either plastic or row cover.
These tunnels can be whatever size is convenient for you, but I recommend a setup that protects the vegetables but that does not directly touch the plants, and that can be ventilated at least once a week or more when sunny.
If you live far north, you might need minimal heat for your covered space—something to keep it above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You also need appropriate attire including warm and waterproof gloves. That is key. If you have those things, you can have a winter garden.
What to Plant
Without extravagant heating sources, your options include cold-hardy vegetables—sorry, tomatoes and peppers and squash are pretty much out. Instead, look at leafy greens such as kale, collards, mustards, lettuce, spinach, chard and mache. Brussels sprouts are extremely cold hardy, as are some cabbages. Flip through that section of your seed catalog and pick out what looks fun.
Plant and Forget
The goal for a winter garden is to get the plant to 75 percent growth before the first real cold sets in, so as light and warmth decrease so will growth. This allows the plant to essentially arrest in a ready-to-eat state for several weeks or months, growing only slightly each day. In contrast to the summer, where plants need constant picking and tending, the winter offers the gardener reprieve to know the plants are just hanging out with vegetables ready to be picked.
Low Weed Pressure
Not only is the pressure lessened in winter to be in the garden tending all the time. The pressure from weeds is less, too. A beautiful thing about winter: The weeds are not germinating or growing at nearly the same pace. Although weeds such as henbit and chickweed love the winter, they’re really your only competition and are easy to deal with as needed.
Low Pest Pressure
Like weeds, garden pests are not nearly as active in the winter as they are in the summer. Aphids can still be an issue when things are not ventilated well. But most everything else either dies or departs with the cold.
The cold often creates some of the tastiest and most nutritious vegetables, too. Anyone who has ever picked a carrot after a cold spell can tell you that it’s a world apart from the summer carrot in terms of sweetness and flavor complexity. Turnips, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts—a lot of vegetables increase their flavor with decreased temperatures. So it’s not only a joy to garden in the winter, but the fruits of your labor are that much tastier.