Cold Cases

By Chelle Cordero

July 3, 2009 5 min read


It may be chilly, but growing during winter is entirely possible

Chelle Cordero

Creators News Service

Around the turn of the 20th century, James Whitcomb Riley wrote a picturesque poem called "When the Frost is on the Punkin," which celebrates the late days of autumn and the change of seasons. Nowadays, gardeners are also finding ways to enjoy the seasons by growing vegetables and other plants well into the frosty days of autumn and even the snowy days of winter -- something you can do as well.

Begin by knowing your local weather conditions and what climate zone you are in. Meanwhile, space out your plantings by the time it takes a crop to mature and when you want to use it. For instance, plant beets, carrots and parsnips by late July for a fall harvest and even later for the spring; root vegetables are often hearty and succeed well in the winter ground with mulch or a light layer of snow to protect them.

Many winter gardeners in northern regions, where winter temperatures range from 35 to zero degrees, use raised beds. "If you have raised beds, the soil warms faster, you can plant earlier and have better drainage, fewer weeds and a more abundant harvest," said Suzy Bales, gardener and author of numerous books, including "The Garden in Winter" ($35, Rodale Books). "A raised bed is a plot raised above ground level. You can mound soil eight to ten inches high in rows one to 1 1/2 feet wide, level the top, and plant. Or build it one to 1 1/2 feet higher and wider, using a retaining wall around the perimeter. Some popular materials used to build the walls are railroad ties and logs. A garden in a container is another way to have a raised bed."

Other ways Bales suggested to keep a garden bed warmer include garden blankets, also known as floating row covers, and hot caps, or individual hothouses of weather-resistant waxed paper. "A cold frame or a greenhouse is the only way to deal with prolonged freezing temperatures," she said.

You can also warm the soil with compost and mulch. Dig a channel completely around the plants and fill it with compost, whose decomposition will naturally heat the soil. Cover the compost with a thin layer of soil. Cold frames placed over thin layers of cow manure or compost also provide a natural heat source.

Whether planting in the ground or in a raised bed or frame, it is a good idea to locate your winter garden in a wind-sheltered area. Raised beds that aren't protected from the wind tend to lose heat rapidly.

You may even be able to keep fresh produce on your table all year long. Several hearty vegetables and plants thrive in cold weather and, with just a few tricks from experienced winter gardeners, you'll be able to keep enjoying home grown veggies through the fall, winter and early spring. An added benefit is that the soil is actually enriched by the seasonal plantings of winter varieties.

"The basic resources necessary to protect vegetables from winter weather are row covers, garden tunnels, unheated greenhouses and cloches. Many can be made from simple materials. In milder climates, a single cover is all that's necessary. In colder climates, like zones four and lower, a double cover is called for," Bales said. To find out what zone you're in, use the plant hardiness map provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at

A cold frame with an additional clear plastic cover works very well. "I have harvested bok choy from my unheated greenhouse after minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit," said Clair Schwan of Wyoming, owner of and an advocate of home gardening -- no matter the season. "Lettuce can easily go below freezing, and radishes, turnips, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are also very cold tolerant.

"Clear plastic covering protects plants from the harsh winter winds, and allows for the capture of sunlight to help heat the area where the plants are growing."

Tony Fulmer, retail manager at Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Ill., reminds gardeners that the fall is the time to take care of trees and perennial bushes such as roses before the weather turns bitterly cold. "Fall is a perfect time to feed trees and shrubs," he said. Use high quality granular fertilizers applied according to directions and "beef up mulch over the root systems of trees and bushes."

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