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winter gardening

A Look at Gardening in Winter Months

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Nov 5, 2019

For gardeners, the first frosts of fall time can lead to mild bouts of depression. After months of prepping the garden soil, getting your seedlings started, transplanting them into the cold and moist earth, and then watching them grow and give off their fruit, the colder months of mid to late fall force us to recognize that the gardening season has once again come to an end. Or has it? Many gardeners resign themselves to wistfully looking through seed catalogs while waiting for spring to return. However, even if you live in the frigidly cold climates of Michigan, Maine, or Montana, there are several things that avid gardeners can do to keep busy during the winter.

Plant Garlic 

The garlic plant is thought to be native to the northernmost regions of Siberia. It was probably brought to the Americas in the 1800s when fishers from Alaska opened trade routes with small Siberian farmers. Siberia's growing conditions are harsh, and the hardy garlic plant is one of the few plants and vegetable crops that thrive during the winter months. Most planting guides recommend planting garlic bulbs several weeks after the first frost.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac states that “garlic roots develop during the fall and winter—before the ground freezes—and by early spring, they start producing foliage.” While the best planting time will depend on your specific climate and when frosts occur, the goal is to give the garlic plant enough time (usually between 2 and 4 weeks) to develop a robust root system before the ground completely freezes over. The root system thrives in the cold (but not frozen) ground temperatures, and as soon as the ground thaws in spring, top growth called garlic scapes will begin to emerge from the ground. Tender garlic scapes are usually one of the first “spring” vegetables, though, in some climates, they might appear as early as February.

backyard greenhouse
Photo Credit: Bepa's Garden

Build a Small Greenhouse

In today’s reality, almost everyone has heard of “the greenhouse effect.” However, the same principle that has led to dangerous global warming can also be applied to extend the growing season. In most climates, a well-built greenhouse can allow home gardeners to grow hardy vegetable crops around the year, even without requiring any external heating.

Many homeowners might think of greenhouses as a massive investment that requires an enormous amount of land and an investment of tens of thousands of dollars. While serious gardeners might gladly spend that money for thousands of square feet of raised beds protected by an all-glass greenhouse, there are more inexpensive and practical options. This tiny home added a small greenhouse on the south-facing side of their home. Not only does the greenhouse provide the family fresh herbs and vegetables throughout the year, but it also reduces their already minimal heating needs by adding insulation and taking advantage of passive house heating design.

Even in cold climates, a greenhouse will raise temperatures enough so that gardeners can grow a wide range of cool-season vegetables, including:

  • Kale
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Swiss Chard
  • Parsnips
  • Collard Greens
  • Rutabagas
  • Red Cabbage

If you identify as a farmer, several government programs offer grants for high tunnel greenhouse systems. Check out the National Resources Conservations Services (NRCS) High Tunnel System Initiative to explore potential grants that might be available.

Mulch, Mulch, and Mulch Some More 

One of the essential organic gardening principles is using mulches around the base and root zones of plants. Mulch, which is available from virtually any organic material, can reduce erosion, increase soil fertility, and create a healthy habitat for soil organisms to thrive. During the winter months, the abundant use of mulch can also protect your trees and other perennial plants and vegetables from winter's frigid temperatures.

Fortunately, nature provides a copious amount of mulch during the fall time in the form of fallen leaves. Instead of raking your leaves, bagging them up, and sending them to the landfill, where they will lead to enormous amounts of methane emissions as they decompose, consider using them as mulch around your trees and garden beds. Other familiar mulch sources include pine needles (great for plants that prefer acidic soil such as blueberries), straw bales, and homemade compost. You can also consider contacting your local utility company to see if they donate or sell truckloads of wood chips from the branches they prune around power lines. Wood chips make an excellent mulch that decomposes very slowly and encourages beneficial fungi growth, an essential part of healthy soil.

3 bin compost
Illustration by McKibillo

Build Necessary Garden Infrastructure 

The winter months can also be a great time to improve your garden “infrastructure” so that once spring comes, you will have everything in place to get your plants into the soil. Some potential garden infrastructure options that you can work on during winter include:

Three-bin Composting Systems

These simple systems, when used correctly, will give gardeners a steady supply of nutrient-rich compost that gardeners can apply throughout your garden. The idea is to “turn” the fertilizer into separate bins as it reaches different decomposition stages. The first bin is for fresh kitchen scraps, fallen leaves, and other organic material. Once the mixture heats up and begins to decompose, you should pass it to the second bin, where millions of microorganisms work around the clock to turn the organic material into fertile humus. The third bin is where the compost is “aged” before applying to garden beds.

Raised Beds, Keyhole Beds, and Hugelkulturs

If you are still planting your garden directly into the soil in a typical row garden, now might be the time to consider shifting to a more intensive growing system. Raised beds are a simple way to give your plants loose and nutrient-rich soil to apply compost throughout the year. Wooden planks, bricks, or stone are the most common materials used for building raised beds. Keyhole beds are similar to raised beds but incorporate a unique design so that gardeners can be surrounded by produce without having to step on the delicate soil. This design reduces the risk of soil compaction while also maximizing the growing area in small yards. Hugelkultur beds are growing “mounds” that incorporate logs and other woody debris underneath the soil. Because woody, vegetative material decomposes gradually, it provides a slow-release fertilizer while also heating the growing bed through the natural decomposition process. Hugelkultur beds not only create a thriving habitat for soil life but can also extend your growing season through naturally heating the soil in your beds.

Protect Your Orchard Trees

The winter months are a great time to stay active in small fruit and nut orchards. Since your fruit trees' bark can quickly become rabbit food, you should consider installing trunk guards. If deer are a problem, you can protect younger trees from browsing simple hardware fencing around each tree. Many fruit and nut trees also respond well to winter pruning so that come spring, your trees will fill out with beautiful flowers.

While you might not be able to grow tomatoes and peppers in January successfully, gardeners can still stay busy during winter with the suggestions outlined above.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-01-04T18:30:14+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.