If your garden usually sits empty through winter, this is the year to make those cold days count. You really can continue gardening in winter in many gardening zones!
A wide variety of vegetables and herbs are easy to grow in cold conditions, given the right protection. Some will produce throughout the season, while others will come back to life in spring if they are covered properly. A few winter-friendly herbs and veggies will grow in containers, but most need more space and shielding from harsh weather.
One of the most popular methods of protection is the cover tunnel, or hoop house. Cover tunnels are conveniently rectangular, easy to extend, and you can make them at home. Plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off make effective shelter for small plants and seedlings. For best results, use clear bottles with the labels removed, and secure them with a plant support.
For more aesthetically pleasing shelter, try cloches. Cloches (from the French word for bell, “cloche”) were traditionally made of glass in a bell shape and protect plants from harsh winds. This is especially important for cabbage family seedlings, such as broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts. Cloches now come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. Some of these materials, such as plastic, are lighter and more easily blown away than others. Properly secure your cloches by weighing them down or burying the sides in the soil.
Now that you know how to keep your winter garden thriving, here are some vegetables and herbs to get you started.
Sow seeds in fall, with one inch between them. Arugula tolerates frosts and moderate freezes but needs protection from harsher weather with a tunnel cover or unheated greenhouse. Once leaves are about two inches long, harvest as needed. Arugula grows well with spinach. Learn more about growing spinach.
Sow seeds in late summer, three inches apart, with eight to 12 inches between rows. Beets grow best in rich soil that is high phosphorus and low in nitrogen. As roots grow, the top of the beet will show. When that happens, the roots are ready for harvesting. If you would like larger beets, cover the shoulders with mulch to avoid toughness. When beets stop producing, they can stay in the ground or be stored. To store, cut off the tops leaving one inch of stem, brush off excess soil, and keep in straw or moist sand. Learn more about growing beets.
For a late-winter to early-spring crop, start seeds indoors in mid- to late-summer. Leave rows two and a half feet apart with about two feet between plants. To prevent cabbage butterflies, cover rows with mesh or netting until harvest. Harvest the first head of broccoli before it splits, using a sharp knife to cut at an angle. Leave some leaves, and a four- to six-inch stem, behind. For smaller side shoots, harvest when dark green. Learn more about growing broccoli.
Start seeds indoors in early spring in places with cool summers. Set plants out in full sun in June or July, leaving 30 inches between plants and three feet between rows. Brussels sprouts look like tiny heads of cabbage and grow off a central stalk. Remove leaves as sprouts mature, and pick sprouts from the bottom up when they are green and about an inch wide. Brussels sprouts will continue to produce into winter, and have higher amounts of vitamin C when temperatures are close to freezing. After last harvest, remove the whole plant from the ground, and store in a cool root cellar. You can also leave the plant in the ground, as it may continue producing through the snow. Learn more about growing brussels sprouts.
For a late autumn crop, sow seeds directly into soil in July. Sow plants three inches apart, with five inches between rows. Carrots need very fertile, deep soil and full sun to partial shade. Give seedlings steady moisture, and reduce to average water as roots mature. Cover exposed shoulders to prevent greening. Carrots are ready to harvest after about two months. While you can judge the size of a carrot by its width, the best way to know for sure whether they’re ready is to check a few. Carrots can stay in the ground to continue maturing and will sometimes produce into winter if mulched. Be warned, the longer carrots stay in the ground, the more likely insects and animals are to eat them. To store plants, trim the stem to a little under one inch, and place in sawdust or sand. Learn more about growing carrots.
In autumn, plant individual cloves from bulbs that were cracked in the past 48 hours. Plant cloves about two to four inches deep with pointed ends up. Space them five inches apart, with rows at least 12 to 15 inches apart. Grow garlic in full sun with soil that is fertile, moist, and well drained, lest the bulbs rot in the ground. Harvest bulbs in summer, once the lower third of leaves have withered. Instead of tugging on the stalk, use a pitchfork to loosen the soil around the bulb, and lift the whole plant out. To cure garlic, hang a few plants together in a bunch in a dark, well-ventilated area for two weeks. Once curing is complete, trim the tops, and store whole bulbs in paper bags for a low-humidity environment. Do not store in the fridge. Learn more about growing garlic.
Sow seeds directly into soil in midsummer, or start indoors and set out in early fall. Plant seeds in a sunny place, at least 18 inches apart, with two feet or more between rows. Kale needs fertile soil to grow well, so use compost. Water the plants heavily, but make sure the soil is always well-drained. Kale is ready for harvest when leaves are a rich green and have a firm texture. Smaller leaves are a good addition to salads. Harvest frequently to promote growth, but avoid picking the bud at the very top. If they are well-mulched, kale plants will continue to produce into winter. Learn more about growing kale.
Sow leek seeds indoors in early spring, and set out plants in midsummer. Use a dibber to make holes at least three inches deep to encourage a longer stem. Space plants five inches apart, with at least 11 inches between rows. Plant in rich soil in a sunny to partially shady spot. Harvest mature leeks as needed, using the largest ones first. In places with mild winters, leeks can grow through spring. Learn more about growing leeks.
Mache is a small salad green that has a nutty flavor and is high in vitamin C. Sow seeds in autumn. Space plants a few inches apart, thinning to five inches apart as they grow. Leave four inches between rows. Mache grows best in well-drained, slightly acidic soil. This small plant is very hardy in cold weather and will continue to produce through winter and into spring. Protect plants with a fleece-covered tunnel. Harvest as needed.
Miner’s lettuce is another small-but-mighty salad green. Sow seeds in late summer to mid-fall in sandy soil with full sun to partial shade. Plant seeds a half inch apart, with three inches between rows, and thin out to three inches between plants. Miner’s lettuce needs consistent moisture. During winter, protect plants with a fleece-covered tunnel. Harvest as needed. Miner’s lettuce will grow through winter into spring.
Parsley comes in curly and flat-leaf varieties. While flat-leaf parsley has a stronger flavor, both varieties are versatile and high in vitamin C, calcium, and iron. To encourage germination, soak parsley seeds overnight in warm water before planting. Sow seeds in early spring in average, well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Place plants three inches apart with at least nine inches between rows. Keep soil moist, and cut off the flower stalk when it appears. Parsley is ready to harvest about 10 to 13 weeks after planting. To harvest, take leaves from the outside of the plant, or cut stems at the bottom of the plant. Parsley grows well with spinach. Keep plants well-mulched, and cover with a low, sturdy tunnel through winter. Learn more about growing parsley.
Start seeds indoors in late summer, and set seedlings out in late fall. Space seedlings two to three inches apart with one foot between rows. Plant spinach in composted soil, and keep it well watered and well drained. When plants have just started to develop, thin the crop to at least seven inches apart. Continue to thin and weed spinach plants to promote air circulation. Plants may produce a small harvest in late fall. Over winter, keep spinach well mulched, and protect it from the elements with a sturdy, low tunnel. At the first sign of new growth in late winter, feed the plants with a water-soluble food. When the spinach leaves have fully developed, cut the plant off at the base. Spinach will not grow back like lettuce. Learn more about growing spinach.
With care and patience, any winter garden can be not only a source of delicious herbs and veggies, but a source of pride. Get started now so that, come winter and spring, you can enjoy the fruits or veggies of your labor.
Writer Megan Smith Mauk grew up in Texas, where she developed a reverence for all forms of life. In college, she became co-chair of the environmental coalition. She now lives with her husband, and their dog and cat, in Virginia.