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Winter Garden: Where and When
from the Bountiful Gardens Archive

At the height of summer here in Northern California where The Jeavons Center is located, days are long and hot and it's almost impossible to imagine the cold short days of winter. But believe it or not, for farmers and gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere, it's already time to begin planning your winter garden. Here's a little help getting started.

Siting the Winter Garden

Book Cover - Four Season Harvest by Eliot ColemanIt is important to site your winter garden in a place best for the plants, but even more important that it be where you will remember to use it. Try to find a good place close to the door so you can check your plants as you come and go. It's a good plan to harvest dinner as you come home from work: you won't have to bundle up and go back out after you are busy indoors. Avoid low spots where cold air collects, areas the low winter sun doesn't reach, and areas that get waterlogged. If you can't choose a site sheltered from wind, it is very important to provide some shelter. A temporary fence, some branches, or straw bales can help. Good soil preparation is also key: plenty of compost will encourage good growth that is also hardy. Make sure there is plenty of potash, (greensand, ashes, or seaweed are good sources). This adds both cold-hardiness and disease- resistance. Seaweed increases cold hardiness and disease-resistance by supplying several other substances besides potash, and is a valuable supplement for winter gardens, either as mulch, as a soil amendment, or as foliar spray.

The serious gardener will want to consult the Four-Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman, who gardens in Maine. This article borrows from that book, as well as from the experience of gardeners in England and the Pacific coast, including Southeast Alaska.

Choosing the Right Crops

Eat seasonally: the vegetables of winter will be different from the beans, corn and tomatoes of summer. Any crop where you eat the seed or fruit will not be available in winter; all winter crops are either leaves or roots. For many people, the big hurdle is learning to work more leafy greens into their meals—but doing so will benefit your health, as well as your budget and the planet. It's easy to add greens to soups and stir-fries; check the library or the internet for tasty recipes for cabbage, kale, and other greens, or concentrate on winter salad crops. Within each type of vegetable, some varieties are better for winter. Of course, cold-hardiness is one trait to look for in catalog descriptions. In rainy climates, rot-resistance, tolerance for mildew and mold, and tolerance for low light levels are important. Dry, windy climates like the Rocky Mountains require drought-tolerant varieties. (Consider misting your plants with water to form an ice barrier in very dry windy weather.) To see a list of Ecology Action's recommended seed sources. go to

Timing: When to Plant

A good plan would be to look up your first-frost date and talk to experienced local gardeners about timing. If you live in a place where both days and nights are warm in summer, you will get faster growth than if nights get cold. Where we are, in the California Coast Range, summers nights are in the 50's and we plant all of our brassicas and fall onions by mid-to-late July. At lower elevations, people plant two weeks to a month later. Plant your brassicas like broccoli, cabbage, and kale, and then sow new seed every week or ten days until frost comes. If you live in a climate where days are warm after your first frost, keep making small plantings until days drop to 40 degrees, or the ground freezes. You can find your first-frost date on the internet (try frostdates) Or you can ask your local garden center, your local county agriculture department, or the Cooperative Extension Service of the State University in your county.

If you live in an area where the soil does not freeze (or not very often) and winter daytime temperatures are often in the 40's or above, your crops probably will make some growth in winter, and you can sow in cold frames anytime, though growth may be slow, and some day-length sensitive plants may bolt. In colder parts of the country, however, plants will not be in active growth. Instead, you will plant and grow crops in the summer and fall which will live through the winter. It is important to plant when the vegetables can get big enough to eat before winter but not so early that they get over-mature and lose eating quality. A long-season vegetable like leeks or cabbage will grow for 100 days before maturity, so plant them 100 days before your first-frost date in the fall. Root crops like carrots should be sown to be mature (or baby-carrot size) at first frost; then they you will mulch them, cover with plastic sheet or a cold frame, and dig them out a few at a time all winter.

Lettuce and spinach are more hardy as baby greens than they are as full-grown plants (in the wild they sprout in the first cold days of spring and go to seed in summer heat). A good strategy is to plant lettuce early enough to make nice heads for fall and early winter use, but also to make fall sowings throughout August (September if days are warm) for baby greens during winter. The very hardy salad greens (arugula, miner's lettuce, mizuna, minutina) are planted at weekly intervals throughout August for winter use. The hardiest green of all, mache or corn salad, can be sown with them, and sowings may continue through September (October in warmer-fall areas). Kale is sown mid-summer, and overwinters as a mature plant. It can also go into salad mixes, in which case it is sown with the baby greens. All of these dates are for coastal New England: in many places frost and cold days will come much later and the planting dates can be adjusted accordingly.

Each sowing of seed need not be large. A short row or two square feet will be fine. Remember that baby greens can be thickly planted, but don't just throw the seed in. Plant individual seeds at 2" spacing for healthy plants and economical use of seed.

Two Gardens in One: A Nursery Bed is Like a Magic Trick

So, you're ready to plant your winter garden, but where can you put all of those little seedlings when your summer garden is in full swing? Many people wait until tomatoes and corn are over, so they have enough space, but by then it is too late and the plants never size up. Using a nursery bed is one of the tricks that can give you two gardens at once: your summer garden still in the ground, and your winter garden waiting its turn. Because the plants in the nursery bed are young, they are spaced closer than they will be later, so they take much less garden space.

How to Make It

A nursery bed is just a piece of ground cultivated to a crumbly texture so that seedlings can grow well. Add compost, which contains substances that trigger germination and growth. Your nursery bed can be an unused bed in the regular garden, a raised box made of wood or blocks, or even a large tub. At this time of year, it will need afternoon shade, so either site it to the east of something tall— like a house, shed, or row of corn—or use shade netting.

How to Use It

You can use a nursery bed, or part of it, for starting seeds instead of in flats or pots. But where it really comes into its own is to hold seedlings that are too large for the flat or pot and in danger of getting potbound. At that stage, summer crops are normally planted into their permanent places. In the case of winter crops, though, those places are occupied by summer crops that we don't want to disturb. Instead, put them into a nursery bed, where they can grow until early fall. It turns out that many winter crops like cabbage and broccoli actually do better if they are transplanted a couple of times. For example: You sow cabbage into a flat or pots August 1st. By Sept 1st, the seedlings are ready for transplant. But you don't want to tear out a row of tomato plants to plant cabbages! So you put them into a nursery bed, at 8" spacing. At that spacing, they take up only 12 sq ft. When the tomatoes come out, your 35 cabbages go in at their final, 16" spacing, filling 50 sq ft. Result: you get two crops from that garden bed instead of one.

Protection: Row Covers, Cold Frames, Greenhouses, and Fleece

You needn't make a huge investment in a greenhouse to have a successful winter garden. Start small. A plastic row cover (like a clear plastic tunnel 1 ½-3" high) will extend your season and go together cheaply and easily. You can even get them ready-made with built-in wire supports. For a really sturdy row cover that will resist wind, rain, and snow loads, use longer supports (flexible pvc pipe works well) and place them in an X pattern (looking at them from above), tying them where they cross. My method is to push flexible branches around the garden bed, bend them over, tie or twist them together, and cover with clear plastic, weighted with rocks or pipe. In heavy snow areas, sturdy end-posts and ridgepole of metal pipe or lumber can support the conventional wire, plastic, or sticks that hold the tunnel's shape, but don't forget to scrape heavy snow off the structure regularly to prevent collapse.

The next level of protection, and the most versatile, is a cold frame. This is a wood box with no bottom and a slanting glass or hard-plastic top. It is placed over the planting area, protects from wind and extreme temperatures, and can be propped open to vent on sunny days. It is easy to open the hinged lid and harvest food. Snow on the rigid lid can be left to provide insulation in very cold weather, or swept off with a broom. You can glue foam insulation on the box for extreme climates, and add plastic or fleece for cold spells.

Fleece, also called floating row cover, and often trademarked as Reemay or Agribon, requires no support (it "floats" on the leaves) and gives enough protection for spring and fall frosts. It admits enough light that it can be left in place. Fleece is a good choice for someone who doesn't want to have to do the venting or watering that greenhouses and other covers may need, but it can be crushed by snow and gives little shelter from excessive wind or rain. You can "stack" protection as weather gets colder: fleece inside a cold-frame or greenhouse for example. An extra sheet of clear plastic thrown over any of these covers will increase their effectiveness, especially if there are spacers to keep the layers from touching.

It is also surprisingly easy to make a hotbed: dig a hole 3'x4' and 2' deep. Fill it with manure or garden waste like grass clippings and straw. Then cover with 8-12" of dirt, sow seeds, and cover with a cold frame or plastic tent. The composting process will generate heat over a long period, enabling salad crops to grow all winter. This works well for spinach, lettuce, and the hardy greens, and was the main source of salad crops in Europe before the era of cheap oil. Plans for row covers, cold frames, greenhouses, and root cellars can be found in Four-Season Harvest, or Summer 2023 check your public library.

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