Winter gardening on the urban farm

By bit bit (bitbit) on October 23, 2011

A big part of self-sufficiency is being able to provide for oneself all year, not just when the weather's nice. And, with the right planning and preparation, it's entirely possible to harvest all winter in most climates. If you've thought about growing some food in the colder parts of the year, read on for tips and tricks.

Winter is a time many gardeners dread - plants die back, the weather's cold, and there's nothing green in the garden.  But, if you plan during the summer, you can have a garden all winter in most climates.  Here's a tour of my urban farm in late October, as we're bracing ourselves for the start of winter and winding down all the activity of summer gardening.

The first thing to think about is what plants will survive the cold weather.  Many garden plants, especially the Brassica family, can stand up even to freezing weather.  This is my side yard, filled with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collards, which will stand through the winter here.  Because these plants need to put on plenty of mass before it gets cold, I started them during the summer, and moved them outside as small plants while the summer veggies were still in full swing.

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Another important thing to remember about winter gardening is that plants don't grow very fast when the days are short and the weather's cold.  So, plant more than it seems like you need, because the plants won't regrow harvested leaves quickly.

For plants that are a little too tender to survive the winter in your climate, you can still grow them with a little protection.  This is a simple tunnel I made from PVC conduit, and it will get covered with plastic sheeting before the first frost.  I used it this spring to give my tomato and pepper seedlings a head start on the season, but it will also be good for keeping tender greens like lettuce, spinach, and chard growing all winter so we can eat salads even with snow on the ground.

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Another thing to think about this time of year is short-season crops.  Some things like turnips, peas, and bush beans are not hardy enough to grow all winter, but grow quickly enough to allow a harvest after the summer crops have been pulled.  Here are some bush beans interplanted with collards in my front yard, and a trellis of peas growing above carrots in the back.

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Aside from Brassicas, many root veggies and alliums are well suited for winter growth.  In the photo above, the row to the right has leeks, parsnips, and walking onions in addition to the short-season crop of turnips.  These will survive all the way through the winter without protection in most of the US, and can form the foundation of a nice, hot pot of soup in early spring.

Herbs can also be a part of your winter garden.  Some summer herbs, such as parsley and mint, will survive the freezing weather with just a bit of protection.  Others, such as this saffron, produce only in the fall, adding color to a garden that is otherwise green and brown.  This shows a tiny saffron flower which has already had its red stigma harvested.  Very tender summer herbs such as basil will have to be brought inside or just wait for the warm weather to return.

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Another favorite winter herb is rosemary.  It not only stays green and productive all year, but its flavor is the perfect complement to many winter foods, such as potatoes and winter squash.  If you harvest some whenever you're out doing work in the garden, it'll be on hand whenever you need to cook with it, and will also fill your house with its wonderful fragrance as it dries.

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Cooking from the winter garden is a treat.  The strong flavors and hearty textures of many winter crops make them perfect for creating the warm, filling meals that our bodies crave when it's cold out.  Soup is always a favorite, and there are endless combinations available from winter-hardy plants.  Here's a quiche I made recently, chock full of broccoli, kale, green beans, and green onions - all winter garden crops.

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Of course, your winter table doesn't have to be limited to things you can grow in winter.  Many summer-grown crops can be stored for winter use by canning or freezing, or for certain crops, just stacking them in your pantry.  I'm growing sweet potatoes for the first time this year - they'll be harvested in a couple weeks and should be stable all winter.  This is what they look like now.

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I've also put up potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squash in addition to the veggies that are canned and frozen.  A full pantry now means delicious homegrown food all winter, to supplement the plants that are still growing in the cold.

Fruit is one thing that's hard to come by in winter, at least if you don't have space for large trees.  This year, I planted hardy kiwi vines, which will produce fruit in the fall that can be kept in the fridge for months.  It'll be a couple years before these plants produce anything, but they're off to a good start, growing up their trellis.

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I hope you all enjoyed the tour, and please leave a comment letting me know about your winter garden, whether it's urban, suburban, or rural.  I'd love to hear about the cold-weather gardening trends and traditions in all different regions.  And on that note, I'll leave you with the staple of winter gardens here in the south - collards.  These greens will stand all winter here, and produce an abundance of hearty leaves, perfect for a winter soup, or just cooked on their own as a side dish.

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Related articles:
urban farming, vegetables, winter gardening

About bit bit
Bit lives on 1/8 acre in a quiet neighborhood in Norfolk, VA, where she and her husband grow most of the produce they eat throughout the year, and dream of one day having bees, chickens, and goats to supplement their vegetable harvest. Her favorite crops include strawberries, potatoes, onions, Swiss chard, and zucchini.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Enjoyed this article CarolineScott Dec 16, 2011 8:09 AM 1
Impressive! CajuninKy Dec 16, 2011 8:05 AM 1
An inspiration as always! stormyla Oct 27, 2011 2:51 PM 16
More resources bitbit Oct 27, 2011 11:20 AM 3

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