We’ve been harvesting fresh vegetables from our zone 5 gardens. Simply put, we grow cool weather crops under double cover without supplemental heat. Today, I’ll share my top six tips to start your first winter vegetable garden. These tips apply mostly to zones 3 through 7. The methods probably won’t work at all below zone 3 and not all the tips apply to zones 8 and above. The first tip is to choose the sunniest possible location for your winter garden, and the best time to do this is in winter.
That way you can actually observe how light hits your yard when the sun is lower in the sky. I learned this lesson the hard way. I started my first winter garden right here, and it was a complete failure. It seemed like a nice sunny spot in late summer when I started planting for winter, but I didn’t consider the possibility that the area would be completely shaded by the house in winter. That winter gardening, with my garden failing, I watched how the sun hit the yard and realized that only the back third of the yard, where I eventually built my hoop house, was sunny.
The rest was shaded by houses. So, if possible, choose the location for your winter garden in winter. The best day to do it is the winter solstice. But if you want to start your garden this year and haven’t had a chance to observe how the sun hits your yard in winter, you do want to spend some time thinking about the impact of shade from buildings, large trees, and fences when the sun is much lower in the sky. These structures cast much longer shadows in the winter, and you want your winter garden to be well to the north of them. Tip number two is to grow undercover. Here in zone five, we usually grow under two layers in winter. And that’s true right here where we have low tunnels and cold frames inside a hoop house.
I cover the cold frames with their glass tops and the low tunnels with six mil greenhouse film around our first frost. Then I cover the hoop house with six mil film in late November or early December. I also add a third layer of Agribon row cover when the temperature dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Season extension guru Eliot Coleman provides a rough guideline that I find very useful when thinking about the impact of growing undercover. He says that each layer of cover creates a microclimate that is roughly equivalent to one and a half zones to the south. So, here in zone five under two layers of cover, we can create a microclimate roughly equivalent to zone eight. Not that much will grow in zone five in winter, but we can get quite a bit to grow here in our zone eight microclimates.
If you live in zones three through six, you’ll get the best results growing with two layers of cover. But if live in zone 7, you can grow what we grow here in zone five with just one layer. Tip number three is to grow in the ground or in very shallow rays beds that are close to the ground. The larger the soil mass the less likely the soil will freeze. Here in the hoop house, under two layers of cover, the soil has never frozen in winter.
The large thermal mass absorbs heat during the day and then releases it at night to keep plants warm. With containers, on the other hand, the small soil mass freezes and thaws repeatedly and this kills plants prematurely. My fourth tip is to only grow crops that can handle a frost, and in zones 5. And below you’ll want to focus on very cold hardy crops – for example, kale, spinach, carrots, mache, and claytonia.
We also go somewhat less cold-hardy crops like Swiss chard, lettuce, and a variety of different mustard greens, but rather than list everything we grow here I’ll put a list in the description below. if you live in zone 6 or 7, you should have no trouble growing all the crops we grow here in zone 5. Plus you’ll be able to grow things like radishes, turnips, and beets more successfully than we do. But the extreme cold and snow in zones 3 and 4 definitely make winter gardening a challenge there. Even so, you can probably harvest mache, claytonia, carrots, kale, and spinach under double cover in winter there.
If I lived in those zones, I probably wouldn’t have a winter garden unless I had a very sturdy hoop house or greenhouse to allow me to get out of the cold and snow to harvest. Tip number 5 is to make sure your plants are close to maturity before one or both of the following conditions are met: temperatures are regularly dipping below freezing, and you have less than 10 hours of daylight. Growth slows as temperatures and daylight hours decrease and comes to a near standstill here in our area in mid-November. So, we want our plants to be mature before that happens.
Growth resumes again undercover in our garden in February, when daylight hours are back above 10. If you’re not sure when you have less than 10 hours of daylight. Please see the link to a daylight calculator in the description below. Tip number six is to not rely on the seed packets’ “days to maturity” when planting for winter. As I discuss in the last tip, growth slows significantly in late summer in the fall. But seed packet “days to maturity” typically reflects growth in the spring. When temperatures are rising and daylight hours are getting close to their peak. Growth happens much more slowly than that in the fall. We start planting for winter in late summer, using this planting calendar tool. You can use the tool too.
Just follow the link in the description and then follow the instructions at the top of the worksheet. I hope this video helps you can make winter gardening. I’ll be covering a lot more winter gardening topics in the next few months. If there any topics you’d like me to cover, please let me know in a comment below. If you found this video helpful, please give it a thumbs up.