Doctors and nutritionists are always telling us we need five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Fortunately the grocery stores are filled with fruits and vegetables. But wouldn’t it be great if you could get fresh vegetables with no chemical herbicides and pesticides all year long?
Fresh Veggies All Year
It is possible. If you use a combination of season-extending practices and carefully choose what to plant and how to store, you can have fresh vegetables all year round.
Here are the key steps to eating fresh veggies year-round:
Know your frost dates
First check your average frost dates. In the spring this is the last day that (on average) there is a frost in your area. In the fall it’s the first day that frost strikes your area. Now remember these are just averages. That means that the actual first and last frost dates could vary by a week or two. So in addition to the established average frost dates, pay attention to weather forecasts.
that we can protect plants from freezing weather. Each has its pros and cons, but all can help extend your window of productive gardening, ensuring that you have fresh vegetables for longer than your neighbors.
Referring back to that three-part series, decide which pros and cons you like the best. Decide how you will protect your garden: with cloches, row covers, hoop houses, cold frames or a combination of any of those.
Spring protection If you are going to use cold frames or hoop houses to protect your plants, set them up as soon you’re able to get them into the garden, as soon after the snow melts as possible. The warm air trapped inside will start warming up the soil.
Hoop houses raise the temperature around the plants 4°-10°. Cold frames can raise the temperature as much as 20°. More importantly they both raise the soil temperature, which is just as important as air temperature when plants are just getting started and first taking root. That means it you can start planting cold-tolerant and cold-hardy plants two to four weeks earlier with the hoop house. A cold frame can give you a head-start of as much as six to eight weeks. Row covers aren’t that helpful in pushing back the planting date in the spring.
Fall protection Cold protection also works to extend the growing season in the fall. Row covers will raise the temperature for the plants 1°-2°. That’s not an awful lot, but it may be just enough to get your tomatoes, peppers and
cucumbers safely through a two or three day cold snap and give you an extra week or two of vine-ripened veggies at the end of the season.
Cold frames and hoop houses will trap a lot more heat and can extend your fall harvest by as much as six to eight weeks.
Even though you succeed in protecting plants from nightly frost, not all plants will continue to produce food. Vining plants won’t produce fruits if the temperatures are below 55°. So why bother with protecting them?
Because while you won’t get new fruit from the plant, you will give the fruits on the plant a chance to ripen. The ripening process slows as the weather cools. If you can get these fruits fully ripened on the vine, they will taste a lot better. And in the case of squash, it will keep longer.
Use a planting guide
This is where you’ll need a bit of math skills. Knowing the average first and last frost dates is just the first step. The plants’ tolerance for cold is also part of the equation. That’s where a planting guide comes in handy.
There are several online planting guides (do a Google search) but I really like Clyde’s Planting Guide. → It stays in my seed file box which makes it easy to reference when I’m about to plant.
The planting guide will tell you when to start seeds indoors and when you can safely sow seeds directly into the soil outside. If you’re using a hoop house you can add one or two weeks to those dates. If you’re using a cold frame you can adjust those dates by 2-6 weeks.
The 10 day forecast will also determine how much of a risk you’re taking with your early planting.
Decide your risks
My planting decisions also depend on how much a risk I’m willing to take. Some crops are too important to risk losing. When it comes to tomatoes, peppers, beans and both winter and summer squash, I’m very conservative.
I’m happy to get one good harvest of beans, get them canned and be done with them. Same with summer squash. But I can never get enough of tomatoes and peppers, so I’m very careful about protecting them and winter squash. I use Wall-o-Water in the spring and row covers or hoop houses in the fall.
But I won’t cry if I lose some of the greens like lettuce, collards or Swiss chard, so I’m willing to push the planting dates on those a bit more. That’s where I’ll experiment more with what and when to plant.
This is a good start
These three steps (protecting your garden, planting for early spring and late fall gardens and pushing the envelope with winter gardening), are the most important things you can do to increase your gardening window.
Here’s the thing about soil temp:
When it comes to seed germination, soil temperature is just as important as ambient temperature. Cold-sensitive plants need 70° for good germination results. Even cold-hardy plants will not germinate well if the soil temp is below 60°.
That’s why you want to start warming the soil underneath as soon as you can. Use a digital thermometer and stick the probe in the ground. As soon as the ground temperature is 60° you can start planting cold-tolerant and cold-hardy plants or sow seeds directly into the ground under the cold frames and hoop houses. That will get you a month or more head start on your garden.
Combining these practices means that if you live in Zone 3 or 4, you’ll extend your garden’s productivity from the typical five to six months to seven to eight months out of the year. If you live in Zone 5, you can probably extend that growing time to nine or ten months out of the year. And with some careful planning and well-timed planting, gardeners in Zone 6 or warmer could enjoy garden-fresh vegetables year round.
After getting the most you can out of the gardening calendar, it’s time to look at what you plant and how you store it.
Plant cold-hardy vegetables
Cold hardy vegetables will survive cold a lot better, so you can push the planting dates farther. If you have cold protection some may even survive the whole winter. Although, if there’s a lot of snow covering the cold frame, you may not want to open it up in midwinter. The snow acts as an insulator, so leave it undisturbed as much as
possible, especially with sub-zero temps. If temperatures are near or below zero, you may not be able to restore the warmth to the cold frame even if there’s lots of bright sunshine.
Choose long-storing vegetables
Most cold-hardy vegetables are also long storing. Kohlrabi will store in cool temperatures for several weeks, up to three months. Cabbage will store for 3-4 weeks.
If you properly store root crops in a cool basement or garage (not freezing!) they will stay fresh for 4-6 months. I’d love to have the perfect root cellar, but we have a high water table, so a root cellar is out of the question. Instead, we store root crops and squash in our unfinished basement. The temperatures are not ideal (it can get as warm as 50° and below freezing near the outside door) but I watch my veggies closely and start using them up when they show signs of aging.
Cold-hardy and root vegetables are obviously long-storing veggies. But winter squash is another long-storer. With their hard skin and firm flesh, they can store for at least 3-4 months. Some varieties, like Blue Hubbard, will store as long as a year without showing any signs of age or decay.
Now I don’t really love many of these long-storing vegetables, especially kohlrabi and squash. But I’ve learned to like them, especially if I use them in a variety of recipes. That’s why I compiled cookbooks with recipes that focus on squash and kohlrabi.
Plant perennial vegetables
Perennial vegetables are usually the first plants
Is it worth it?
Winter gardening is not for everyone. Sometimes we just like to have a break from all the fuss and worry of gardening.
And while I’ve seen lots of videos and books on winter gardening, I find that my success rate is a bit more than 50%. A particularly hard winter or unexpected cold snap can destroy all the care I’ve put into the garden.
But experimenting is half the fun of gardening. So try it and see if it’s worthwhile for you and your circumstances.
to emerge in the spring, sometimes weeks before I can even start planting in the garden. The nice thing about perennials is they require very little care once they are established.
One more fresh veggie
There’s one last source of fresh veggies: sprouting. Sprouting takes an inert seed and turns it into a fresh vegetable. Use them in salads, sandwiches and stir-fry.
Grow your sprouts a bit longer for micro-greens. What I’m doing right now satisfies all my craving for fresh food, so I haven’t experimented much with micro-greens. But micro-greens could be another good source for nutritious vegetables in the dead of winter.
Variety is the key
I know we all have our favorite vegetables and we tend to routinely plant those favorites every year. But you may want to add more cold-hardy and long-storing vegetables to your garden this year so that you can have more fresh veggies for the table this winter.
If you are flexible about what you plant, how you’ll preserve and store veggies and what cold protection you’ll use, you may find that you are able to put fresh veggies on your table any time throughout the year.