As we close down the summer months and head into the fall, this is a good time to start thinking about winter vegetables and how we might make use of them to extend our vegetable gardening season for many months – right into the very cold days and nights of winter. You might even have some of these cold hardy varieties growing in your garden now. If not, this would be a great time to plant them so you have freshly matured crops that are sufficiently robust to face Old Man Winter.
Let’s take a look at what you might plant and grow so you’re better prepared to enjoy fresh vegetables long after most of the traditional summer crops have found their way into your compost pile. There are about 20 varieties of vegetables that come to mind, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on just a few general types and offer examples of each. That should give everyone a good idea of the range of possibilities and the potential for success.
First off, there are root crops. Think of turnips, carrots, beets and rutabagas. The main edible portion of these crops resides in the soil and that means they can make use of the natural warmth in the ground that has been built up all summer long. Initial frosts may take out the tops of these vegetables, but the roots won’t be affected in the least.
Use a plastic row cover and you can establish a low profile “greenhouse” that will help extend the time that your root crops see good weather for growing. Heavy mulch can also provide a cover of insulating material that can help your root crops feel like they’re in September when it’s in the middle of November.
Second, think early season spring crops like peas, radishes, lettuce and broccoli. Much of what enjoys cool spring weather will also flourish in the cool fall weather. Better yet, given a bit of protection from the elements, these cool weather crops will likely give you good performance in cold weather. The advantage of growing spring crops in the fall is that they’ll enjoy quick germination with the warm soil, and then during their growth period they’ll enjoy the cooler temperatures of fall that they really prefer.
If you grow cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, they’ll grow well in the springtime but go dormant in the heat of summer, only to perk back up again when the cooler fall temperatures come back around. It’s counter-intuitive, but these type of vegetables prefer cool temperatures that would make tomatoes, cucumbers and squash stop producing.
Third, focus on winter vegetables like kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts and bok choi. Some of these vegetables will amaze you as to how low they can go when it comes to late fall and early winter temperatures. Although harvesting must be done at temperatures above freezing, many of these cold hardy vegetables can go below freezing, and even below zero Fahrenheit. I’ve harvested bok choi after minus 15 F. To put that into perspective, that’s 46 degree below freezing on the Fahrenheit scale.
The keys to success with winter vegetables are: 1) get them coming into winter as freshly matured plants; 2) provide them with adequate protection from the elements; 3) cut way back on water; and, 4) harvest after surrounding temperatures are above freezing for several hours. You might want to invest in row covers, cold frames, hoop houses, or even build your own greenhouse, but you don’t have to provide any additional heat.
If you’ve never experimented with winter vegetables, now might be just the time to do so. Do you have some collard or kale seeds left over from your spring plantings? How about some seeds for turnips, radishes, lettuce or bok choi? Any of those vegetables would be good to start off with. While they’re getting started, perhaps you could create a little bit of protection in the form of a cold frame, garden tunnel or a simple cloche. I promise you that you’ll be amazed at what cold hardy vegetables can do if you just give them a chance to extend their season into the late fall and winter months.
Clair Schwan is an avid vegetable gardener who builds his own greenhouses and extends his season of harvest well into the winter months. See his adventures in homemade greenhouses at http://www.frugal-living-freedom.com/ and make use of his vegetable gardening advice over at http://www.vegetable-gardening-and-greenhouses.com/ Both sites are dedicated to helping others live a more self directed life that includes taking control over your own food supply.
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