growing winter vegetables

Growing winter vegetables; it’s easier than you think!

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By late September, I know that the first frost is imminent in my zone 5B vegetable garden. But that doesn’t mean that my planting season is over. In fact, I still have more garden beds left to seed. Growing winter vegetables – particularly, planting overwintering crops – is easier than you think. Plus, it results in a bounty of homegrown greens in March and April. 

growing winter vegetables

These snow covered mini hoop tunnels hide a bounty of overwintering spinach, arugula and baby kale.

What’s an overwintered crop? It’s a clever way to foil Mother Nature (and impress your neighbours!), and harvest months before the ‘normal’ planting season of late spring. It involves direct seeding cool and cold season veggies – typically leafy greens – in early autumn. They are then protected with a simple structure or insulating materials until they are ready to harvest in March and April.

Related Post: Clever Cloches

Growing winter vegetables: 2 ways to overwinter crops

1) Mulching

The easiest, quickest, and cheapest overwintering technique is to use a mulch of straw or shredded leaves. This requires a slightly earlier planting date than with the mini hoop tunnel approach, as mulched plants will come through the winter better if they are at least semi-mature. Therefore, sow seed four to six weeks before the average first frost date. Then, when the temperature is hovering near freezing on a regular basis, mulch the young plants with about a foot (30 cm) of organic materials. Cover with a row cover or bed sheet to keep the leaves and straw from blowing away and say good night until March.

Related Post: 10 easy edibles that give you the most bang for your buck

growing winter vegetables

In March, overwintered spinach is ready to eat!

2) Mini Hoop Tunnels

My favourite way to overwinter greens is with a mini hoop tunnel. I use these handy and quick-to-build structures all year long: in early spring to get a jump start on the garden, in mid-summer they’re covered with shadecloth to delay bolting for salad crops, in winter they create a microclimate around tall crops like kale, leeks, and collards. But, mini hoop tunnels are also ideal for overwintering. They allow plenty of light to reach the crops, which jump-starts growth as the day length increases in February.

Related post: Want Winter Veggies?

growing winter vegetables

Asian greens like mizuna and mustard are very hardy and extremely easy to overwinter.

My tunnels are made from lengths of 1/2-inch (1.25 cm) PVC conduit bent in a U-shape over my 4 by 10-foot (1.2 by 3 meter) garden beds. Each end of the conduit is slipped over a 1-foot (30 cm) rebar stake. A center support sheds snow and a cover of 6 mil greenhouse plastic blocks winter wind and traps solar energy. The beds are seeded in late September to early October, but are not given their winter covers until November. (Full details on my mini hoop tunnels and other winter harvesting techniques in my best-selling, award-winning book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener).

Growing winter vegetables: Overwintering superstars!

I’ve grown a wide selection of vegetables in my overwintering tunnels, but focus mainly on hardy greens like spinach, arugula, mache, claytonia, mizuna, tatsoi, mustard, kale, and endive. Once you’ve chosen the type of crop you want to grow, further whittle your selection to the most cold-tolerant varieties. Find out which are the best winter picks by reading your seed catalogues and packets carefully. For example, ‘Tyee’ is an outstanding cold hardy spinach that winters better than ‘Bloomsdale’.

Are you growing winter vegetables in your garden?

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13 Responses to Growing winter vegetables; it’s easier than you think!

    • Renée says:

      I’m a zone 2 so I’m thinking this won’t work for me. Neet idea though

    • Niki Jabbour says:

      Hey Renee.. thanks for your comment.. well, extending the season will be different for you. It’s more about growing the hardiest crops like kale, mache, tatsoi, scallions, etc and then protecting them with mini hoops, cold frames or polytunnels. You won’t harvest all winter. But, you can still harvest for much longer than your traditional season.. and push back spring by months. 🙂 – Niki

  1. Cary Bradley says:

    My Ragged Jack red Russian kale is a great overwinterer even without protection in my zone 6B. Some individuals don’t make it, but the ones that do are tremendously productive and yield copious leaves and seeds for eating and seeding the subsequent years. Love it!!! Oh! Thanks too for suggesting Tyee variety that does well for you. Just ordered!!! 🙂

    • savvygardening says:

      Thanks for your comment Cary! We also overwinter kale.. at this time of year, I’m planting baby kale for late winter, but I do shelter a few of my mature plants with a mini hoop tunnel in late autumn. Sadly, I’m in zone 5 and they won’t overwinter very well without protection – too much ice and snow! 🙂

  2. kate c. says:

    Thanks for the info on size of PVC and thickness of plastic. My beds are the same width as yours. How long are the PVC conduit pieces that you bend over the beds? I’m wondering how long to make them so the tunnels will be high enough off the plants, but not too high! I’m in Zone 5a (but pretty close to 4b… 🙂

    • savvygardening says:

      Hey Kate – thanks for your comment! The PVC conduit are 10 foot lengths.. sometimes you can find 8 foot, but these 10 foot ones are ideal as they bend nicely.. You can also buy metal benders from Johnny’s Seeds in Maine for bending metal conduit.. those make excellent and super sturdy hoops. I just get my PVC (and metal) conduit at the local hardware or home improvement center. I’ve experimented with many (many!) types of hoop materials – even hula hoops cut in half! – but love my current tunnels. Hope this helps! – Niki

    • kate c. says:

      That’s exactly what I was looking for, thanks! I don’t really want to fuss with metal benders, so I’ll have to try PVC next fall. I’m ready to take the leap into winter gardening next year. Never felt like I had time before, but now that the youngest kid is getting fairly self-sufficient… time to garden year round!

    • savvygardening says:

      So exciting!! And you’ll find it’s easier than it looks.. just pick the right cold tolerant crops and pair them with the right season extenders.. most planting is late summer/early autumn and I do use my grow lights in mid summer to start seedlings for fall broccoli, etc. Keep us posted!

    • kate c. says:

      Thanks! I’m pretty excited about it! We have a huge (12ft long) sliding glass door in our basement that is south-facing, so I always start my seeds there without grow lights and they turn out fine. May have to change that for mid-summer starting as it might be too hot for them with that much sun, but it’s all part of the fun to experiment! 🙂 Thanks for your quick replies!

    • savvygardening says:

      Anytime!! Good luck 🙂

  3. Carmen Bush says:

    10′ length for the 4′ bed width correct? I have 3′ high raised beds and plan on using PVC pipe. 1/2″ dia. hoops inside of 3/4″ dia. pieces (6″ long) bracketed to the outside of the beds. My beds are 4′ x 8′. Any further suggestions (i.e., how many hoops, etc) ?

  4. Paula M says:

    Hi Niki from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador! I know it’s spring now and here I am reading about overwinter crops (I was looking for article about mulching). When you wrote “mulch the young plants with about a foot (30 cm) of organic materials.” you mean around the young plants that have germinated in the meantime or on the top of the seeds that were sowed. Thanks!

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