Summer’s glory might be fading here in the northern hemisphere, but gardeners don’t have to tuck their green thumbs away just yet: there are many cold-hardy plants that can be sown in the autumn and harvested over the winter, and if you plant them within the next couple of weeks, you may be able to indulge in fresh produce right through to January or February. Granted, you won’t be able to indulge in strawberries or tomatoes until next spring and summer, but being able to pluck some crisp kale or winter lettuce in mid December can induce some pretty big smiles all ’round.
When it comes to growing food outside in colder weather, it’s important that your soil is very nutrient-dense, that you have some good mulch available to insulate the plants, and that your little sprouts will get plenty of sunshine. The ideal way to grow would be in a cold frame, or inside large glass cloches: using these is like creating mini greenhouses over your plants, so they’ll get a nice boost of heat and humidity while being protected from wind, freezing rain, and even snow.
Here in rural Quebec, where the temperature can dip below -35C/-31F (yes, that bloody cold), it’s usually a good idea to grow winter greens indoors. This can be done by placing potted plants near south-facing windows for maximum light exposure, but any window that lets in a significant amount of light can be helpful for growing a variety of different plants. Insulated or heated greenhouses can also provide you with fresh vegetables all winter long, so if you have the space for one on your property, it can be an invaluable investment. Greenhouses, cloches, and cold frames will also ensure that neighborhood animals won’t get at your vegetables: food is scarce for them during the cold months, and your greens will be mighty tempting to local wildlife.
Hardy Winter Lettuces
The lettuces that grow best in cold weather may not be the ones you’re accustomed to: supermarket staples like iceberg or Boston don’t thrive well in autumn or winter, but butterhead, canary tongue, romaine, valdor, and radicchio are likely to thrive.
Other varieties that can grow well in colder temperatures include cos lettuce, arugula (rocket), and frisee. Keep in mind that winter lettuces will be fairly strong-tasting and possibly bitter, so you can blanch them for a few days before harvesting them in order to reduce their bitterness. To blanch them, just cover them with an overturned flower pot.
Certain spinach varieties can hold up very well in colder weather, as can mustard greens. One of the best ways to grow these is to put them in containers that can be placed in a sunny, south-facing spot during the day, and taken indoors at night.
Corn salad (Valerianella locusta), also known as lamb’s lettuce, is a hardy little green with a nutty flavor, and you can grow it straight through the winter under cloches.
Winter Purslane, land cress, and salad burnet are also lettuce-ish greens that you might like to try out, and leeks have been known to tolerate the cold fairly well too.
As a winter crop, these are best grown in the southeastern United States, southern Europe, or warmer regions in Australia (though not at this time of year for those of you down under). They can be planted up until mid October for a mid-late winter harvest.
If there’s a sunny, well-protected area in your garden, kale might be a great vegetable for you to grow. This green is incredibly cold hardy, and actually gets sweeter and more tender after a frost. Start it indoors, then transplant it outside (or grow it in a greenhouse/under a cloche in regions that get severely cold), and be prepared to munch away happily well into December or January.
Kohlrabi is an ideal winter vegetable, as it tolerates the cold very well and grows really quickly. You can eat the leaves in salads or soups, and then use the bulb either raw or cooked once it’s a decent size. It’s best to start this from seed indoors and then transfer to your cold frames once it’s a few inches tall.
Collards are remarkably tolerant of colder weather, and can be used as wraps or added to soups and stews for a mega-dose of vitamins.
All radishes grow very quickly, and their peppery leaves are as delicious as their crunchy little roots. Grow them in a sunny spot that’s very rich in compost, ensuring that there’s some sort of mulch (like straw) around them as insulation. In a few short weeks, you’ll be able to add their tops to scrambles, quiches, soups, or salads, and the roots that follow can be sliced thinly for sandwiches and raw dishes.
If your soil is sandy and well-drained, and is unlikely to be covered by snow until December or January, you can also sow broad beans in mid-November for over-wintering: this should result in a very early spring crop, which is always appreciated after several cold months of eating root vegetables. You can also plant garlic for a late spring/early summer harvest, if you’re fond of such things. Keep in mind that you can also sprout seeds indoors at any time of year; not only are they little nutrient powerhouses, they also add delightful texture and crunch to salads and veggie dishes.
Remember that in addition to planting edibles, you can also sow seed that will nourish your soil as a mulch over the winter. Plants like winter rye, red clover, and hairy vetch will have just enough time to sprout before the cold really sets in, and they’ll pour nutrients into the earth as they decompose.
An avid permaculture gardener, locavore, and novice (but enthusiastic!) canner, Lana Winter-Hébert joins Inhabitat after spending the last decade working as a writer and event guru for non-profit/eco organizations. In addition to her work with this site, she writes features and blog posts for Vegan Cuts, Green Pigeon, and several event planning websites based in London, UK. Currently, Lana divides her time between writing, and doing collaborative projects with Winter-Hébert: the design studio she runs with her husband. Best described as “endearingly eccentric”, she spends any spare moments wrestling with knitting projects, and devouring novels by obscure Czech writers. A Toronto native, she has recently chosen to leave that splendid city in favor of a tranquil lakeside nook in rural Quebec, where she and her Sir co-habitate with two hand-raised sparrows that live in their writing-desk.