I live in a region where winters can be long, cold, and very snowy. But, I still enjoy a homegrown harvest from my vegetable garden year-round. The key to a successful winter harvest is to know the right vegetables to grow in winter and pair them with the right season extenders. That means growing cold tolerant crops in structures like cold frames, mini hoop tunnels, greenhouses, or polytunnels.
Learn how to pick the best vegetables to grow in winter:
Learning the best vegetables to grow in winter, from November through March, starts with a little background in winter harvesting. I’ve got plenty of details in my book Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden. If you’re new to winter vegetable gardening, start with just a few crops and a cold frame or mini hoop tunnel, experimenting with what works best in your region. Climates milder than my zone 5 Nova Scotia garden, may find success with a simple length of fabric row cover floated over crops on PVC or metal hoops. You can make your own fleece tunnels or buy a tunnel kit for quick assembly.
I need more protection in my region so I add a layer of polyethylene film on top of my fabric tunnels to shelter kale, collards, leeks, and hardy salad greens in winter. In colder zones, gardeners should use insulating structures like cold frames and stick to the hardiest vegetables (kale, scallions, mache, and tatsoi for example) to ensure success.
It’s also important to understand that the growth of most vegetables slows once the day-length shrinks to less than ten hours a day. For me, that happens in early November so I need to make sure my winter vegetables have reached a harvestable size by that time. At that point, my cold-tolerant vegetables stay tucked in their season extenders waiting for me to harvest.
When to plant winter crops
Wondering when to seed or plant winter crops? Most vegetables to grow in winter are planted from mid-summer to early autumn, depending on the crop. Learn more about timing winter crops in my book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.
Smart winter gardening begins with the arrival of the seed catalogs. Read the crop descriptions carefully opting for varieties with increased cold tolerance. For example, I love dinosaur kale and we enjoy it in spring, summer, and autumn, but it’s not as cold tolerant as ‘Winterbor’ or ‘Redbor’ kale. So I stick to the most cold-tolerant varieties for our winter vegetable garden.
Eight of the best vegetables to grow in winter:
No self-respecting winter garden is complete without several varieties of hardy kale. In fact, as the temperature drops in late autumn, the flavor of kale improves. We grow kale two ways – as a mature crop for soups, sautés and chips and as a baby green for tender winter salads. ‘Winterbor’ is a beautiful and delicious kale that grows three feet tall with deeply curled blue-green leaves. I also enjoy growing ‘Red Russian’, a classic variety with vivid purple stems and gray-green leaves. This is the variety we like to use for kale chips.
For years I’ve tested dozens of varieties of lettuce in my winter cold frames and tunnels. Lettuce is definitely one of the very best vegetables to grow in winter. I’ve had great luck with hardy varieties like ‘Winter Density’, ‘Red Salad Bowl’, and ‘Winter Marvel’. But, I have recently been experimenting with Salanova® lettuce varieties and I am in love! These baby-sized lettuces form dense rosettes of tender green, red, or burgundy leaves. They’re beautiful, tasty, and have performed extremely well in my unheated winter polytunnel.
We affectionally call our winter carrots, ‘candy carrots’ because they’re so sweet. Like kale, beets, leeks, and many other crops, their flavor improves after a few frosts in late autumn. We sow seed for our winter carrot crop in mid-summer, and deep mulch the bed in November with shredded leaves or straw. This insulating layer is topped with an old row cover or bed sheet to hold it in place. Whenever we want to harvest, the fabric and mulch are pulled back and we dig as many sweet roots as needed. Best bets for winter harvesting include ‘Napoli’, ‘Mokum’, or ‘Bolero’.
Asian greens are another plant on the list of best vegetables to grow in winter. There are so many awesome types of Asian greens available to gardeners through seed catalogs. We grow different ones in spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and I’ve found the best ones for cold season harvesting include pac choi, tatsoi, mizuna, and mustard. These are very fast to grow and offer a range of foliage textures, colors, and flavors. I direct seed in early September, or give the seedlings a head start indoors under my grow lights before they’re moved to the garden beds in mid-September.
‘Evergreen Hardy White’ is a cold season superstar in our winter frames and tunnels. This extremely hardy variety produces long green tops with tender white stalks. I direct sow the seed in September, and the first harvest usually takes place by mid-November. With protection we harvest flavorful scallions all winter long.
Also called corn salad or lamb’s lettuce, mache is one of the top vegetables to grow in winter. The plants form two to four-inch diameter clusters of leaves that are harvested whole by slicing the stem off at soil level. After a quick rinse, the rosettes are tossed with a simple dressing and enjoyed as a salad green. ‘Vit’ is my variety of choice and is direct seeded in late summer. Mache self-sows easily, almost too easily, so pull any leftover plants in spring if you don’t want mache popping up throughout your garden.
Spinach thrives in the cool, shorter days of autumn and well into winter. I sow the seed in my cold frames and polytunnel in mid to late September, as well as in a few open garden beds. Those beds will eventually be covered with polyethylene topped mini hoop tunnels when autumn switches to winter. Try ’Giant Winter’, a variety bred for winter harvesting or ‘Tyee’, ‘Melody’, or ‘Winter Bloomsdale’. I’ve had good success with harvesting all of these throughout winter.
Arugula was the green that first introduced me to the possibilities of winter harvesting, and all these years later it’s still one of my favorite cold season crops. There are two main types of arugula you can harvest in winter; wild and garden. The garden varieties like ‘Astro’ are very quick growing and have strappy leaves. Wild arugula is slower growing, but more cold tolerant, with deeply lobed leaves. It also has a more robust flavor. We seed arugula every few weeks starting in early September to ensure a non-stop supply of this peppery green in our cold frames and polytunnel. Harvest as a baby crop or allow the leaves to grow full-sized.
For more information on growing winter vegetables, check out my book The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener (Winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award) and my latest book, Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden. You may also wish to read these posts on winter vegetable gardening:
- 3 Ways to Grow Fresh Vegetables in Winter
- Corn Mache for the winter garden
- Harvest Mustard Greens all Winter Long
- Mulch Root Crops for Winter Harvesting
- Learn How to Overwinter Crops for Extra Early Harvesting