Some gardeners make the mistake of thinking that gardening is mostly a spring and summer pursuit. But when you plan accordingly, and make certain additions to your garden, you can grow food all year round. It does not matter if you live in a cold climate area with a short growing season. Even with a very long cold period, you can keep growing food in your garden all winter long.
Some temperate climate gardeners speak of ‘putting their gardens to bed’ for winter. But when you really get to know a garden, you see that it is not sleeping at all. While much of the garden may seem to be slumbering – there is still plenty going on. Plant mechanisms work away, readying them for the winter, and for the spring to come. Winter wildlife seeks out winter berries and shelters in the garden foliage. And below the soil, the biota living beneath the soil continue their important work.
Planning Ahead in Your Sowing and Planting Schedule
It may sound a little strange to novice gardeners, but planning and sowing for winter growing usually begins way back in the spring.
Sowing and Growing For Winter in the Spring
Brussels sprouts – an iconic winter vegetable.
In spring, you can plan ahead for the winter months by sowing seeds for vegetables that will be harvested in the deep midwinter. One good example of this is parsnips. These are generally sown quite early in the year. They will grow their roots over summer and fall, and then be sweeter after the first few frosts of fall. In many areas, parsnips can be left in the ground well into winter, and harvested as and when they are required.
Another example is Brussels sprouts. This brassica is usually sown from April onwards, and will grow slowly to maturity over the coming months. While some can be harvested from around October, the sprouts are also often left on the plants, and harvested around Christmas time. The sprouts, like a number of other vegetables, will actually become sweeter after they are touched by frost.
Leeks are another common winter vegetable. They can be sown between February and April in pots and then transplanted into their final growing positions to be in fall through winter. Leeks will also improve in taste after being exposed to frost, and can be left in the ground throughout the winter and harvested as and when they are needed.
There are also a number of other vegetables that can be sown in the spring, grow over the summer, and remain in your garden to be harvested over the winter months.
Sowing and Growing for Winter in the Summer
Kale in frost. Kale is another winter staple in cold climate zones.
In mid and late summer, the cold chilly winter might be the furthest thing from your mind. But even though winter still seems a long way away, now is the time to sow seeds of a number of winter harvested greens – such as kale, winter cabbage and chard. Sowing these in July or August will allow them to put on sufficient growth before the colder weather arrives and the dormant period begins.
You can also, as summer progresses, plant your final crops for the year of carrots, beets, turnips and other root crops. With a little protection, these too can be left in your garden well into the winter months. You can also sow winter lettuces and other leafy greens that can stay in your garden through winter as long as they are protected from frosts and other winter weather extremes.
Sowing and Growing for Winter in the Fall
Garlic and onion – some late season plantings are a good idea.
In fall, it is still not too late to sow some seeds for food over winter. A number of seeds sown at this time of the year will be sown for food next year – such as winter peas and beans, overwintering onions and garlic.
But there is also often still time in September of October to sow some hardy greens and salad leaves that will grow a little and can be harvested over the winter months as long as they have some protection. Asian greens like mizuna and mibuna, arugula, and mustard are all quick growing, hardy options that could help feed you over the winter months.
Plan ahead for the winter through all the previous seasons and you should be able to create a garden that does not give up the ghost as soon as the first frosts arrive. But as you can see from the above, many of the plants sown earlier in the year will need some form of protection to make it through the winter in colder climes. So if you live in a cooler or cold temperate climate, it is a good idea to think about creating some undercover growing areas in your garden.
Creating Undercover Growing Areas for Your Garden
There are a range of different options when it comes to creating undercover growing areas in your garden. The main options are:
- glass greenhouses
- plastic greenhouses, polytunnels or hoop houses
- cloches or row covers.
Which one you choose will depend largely on your budget, and how much space is available.
Glass Greenhouses For Growing Food
A glass greenhouse can come in many shapes and sizes.
Glass greenhouses can be a particularly effective form of winter protection. If you buy a greenhouse, it can be quite expensive. However, by making your own (from reclaimed windows and doors, for example) you can build one even on a very tight budget.
Glass greenhouses will usually be somewhat warmer than plastic covered structures, which can make them a good choice for particularly cold areas. They can be large, or very small, depending on the amount of space which is available.
Glass greenhouses can be stand-alone structures. But in order to increase their efficacy for winter growing, they can also be lean-to structures built against the side of your home to ‘borrow’ some of its heat. They can also be built into the ground to create an earth-sheltered greenhouse or ‘walipini’ sunken greenhouse, which takes advantage of the heat stored by the ground.
Glass greenhouses, however, do come with some limitations regarding how the material can be used. You will need to create a strong frame to support the glass. Of course, you will also have to consider how likely it is that the glass will be broken, and whether that could pose a danger to, for example, children or pets.
Plastic Covered Structures For Growing Food
A mini greenhouse or row cover is perfect for smaller spaces.
You can also make or buy a range of undercover growing structures that use plastic rather than glass to provide winter protection. Using plastic can be an even more affordable choice, and when you choose a durable form, it can last for years and years.
Some people are quite rightly concerned about using plastic in their homes and gardens, due to the environmental problems associated with it. But a piece of plastic you will use for years is rather different to one that will only be used for a short time before it is thrown away. Plastic does come with a high carbon cost. But that cost will be reduced by using longer-lived products. And one good thing about most plastic used in greenhouses and polytunnels is that it is possible to recycle it at the end of its useful life.
Due to its strong yet flexible properties, plastic can be used to create a wider range of different undercover growing areas than glass. You can make:
- Traditional shed-shaped greenhouses.
- A-frame structures.
- Wigwam/tipi type structures.
- Arched tunnel shaped undercover growing areas.
- Geodesic domes.
And more… Depending on the framework that you use to support the plastic, you can make growing areas suited to almost any space.
Cloches or Row Covers
Even if you do not have the space in your garden for a full-sized, walk-in undercover growing structure, you can still consider making some smaller undercover areas to provide some extra protection to your winter crops.
You can use glass or plastic, and a wide range of frame structures to make cloches, protective tents or row covers for particular beds or growing areas in your garden. To protect individual plants, you can even consider using reclaimed plastic waste, such as clear food buckets, or plastic bottles cut in half, to cover them. This will not only help to protect the growing food in your garden, it can also be a great way to reduce your household waste, and keep items out of landfill for as long as possible.
Mulches & Insulation for Winter Protection
Fall leaves are a natural mulch material that you could use to keep roots frost free.
In addition to considering the possibility of buying or making undercover growing areas for your garden, you can also use other methods to keep plants safe in winter. Growing food in your garden all winter is easier if you also consider other forms of winter protection – like mulches.
Mulching with straw or other organic matter around the base of your winter vegetables and other plants can help to keep the ground unfrozen, and allow the roots to continue doing their job.
If you are growing food in pots or containers, you can also consider winterizing your pots by wrapping them in an insulating layer of hessian or sacking. You could also consider using sheep’s wool, or recycling some bubble wrap for the purpose.
Making a Hot Bed For Growing Food in Winter
A hot bed filled with chicken manure, wood chip and other materials. (Self-taken)
Even with extra protection, there will be times, in certain climates, when you need a little extra heat. But before you consider adding some space heating for your undercover growing areas, think about making a hot bed instead.
A hot bed is a growing area that is warmed from underneath by decomposing materials. A raised bed is filled with straw and manure/ compost, and topped with a layer of growing medium. As the straw and manure/ compost decompose in place, they generate heat. This heat will gently warm your plants from below and this can dramatically extend the length of your growing season.
By covering this hot bed with a cloche or other cover, or by placing your hot bed inside a greenhouse or polytunnel, you can often succeed in growing food in your garden all winter. It could also dramatically increase the number of edible plants that you are able to grow where you live.
By providing a source of gentle, natural heat, a hot bed can be an alternative to more costly methods of winter heating. It can be an effective measure to keep plants frost free – especially when placed inside a greenhouse or polytunnel. Even when implemented outside, a hot bed can be covered by glass or plastic in order to retain the heat that is given off by the composting materials.
Space Heating For Undercover Growing Areas in Winter
If more heating is required where you live, you do not necessarily have to spend a lot of money. Nor do you have to resort to heating methods that are harmful to our planet. It is always a good idea to move away from fossil fuels, and to use instead more renewable forms of energy.
If you have the money, you could consider generating your own energy for space heating in your garden (and home). Examples of renewable energy generation and sustainable ways to heat your undercover growing area include:
- Solar (photovoltaic) panels.
- Wind turbines.
- Hydropower (if you are lucky enough to have running water on your property).
- Geothermal/ ground source heating systems.
- An efficient biomass or wood fired stove (such as a rocket mass stove).
- A biomass or wood fired boiler (for hot water heating, with pipes run through growing areas to gently heat the soil).
- Small natural heaters made with a candle and plant pot.
Solar panels could provide electricity for a greenhouse, as well as a home.
Using Passive Solar Design
Whichever method or methods you employ to heat an undercover growing area, conserving the heat energy is just as important as how you garner it in the first place. Good passive solar design can reduce heating requirements in an undercover growing area, or even get rid of them altogether.
Passive solar design involves making full use of the sun’s energy (not through active solar, like solar panels, but through careful design and materials use). Passive solar design involves maximising the sunlight and heat that enters into the structure during the winter months. It also involves working out ways to retain that energy within the structure.
Thermal mass is important in passive solar design. It involves making use of materials with high thermal mass. These are materials that will absorb the heat energy from the sun during the day, and release it slowly when temperatures call during the night. Materials with good thermal mass include:
- ceramics/ tiles
- clay/ adobe
Using these and other high thermal mass materials in an undercover growing area can help to retain natural heat, and even out temperatures within the structure.
If you are incorporating new undercover growing areas, passive solar design is pivotal. Passive solar design is one of the key things in growing food in your garden all winter.
Growing and eating your own food year round does take some planning, preparation and forethought. But by considering the methods and practices outlined above, you should be able to do so, wherever in the world you happen to live, and no matter how much space you have at your disposal.