Growing vegetables in the winter may not be something that normally crosses your mind, especially in colder climates like northern Utah. However, many people don’t realize their garden, if cared for correctly, could yield produce until Halloween, or possibly even Thanksgiving, without much extra effort.
Why should you think about extending your growing season? Well, as most gardeners will attest, home grown vegetables taste much, much better. They’re healthier, too. The nutrients in produce begin to deteriorate once it is harvested. In the winter months, the distance from farm to the grocery store is typically greater, meaning more time has elapsed since the harvest, and more nutrients are zapped from the food. If you can harvest the produce 50 feet from the kitchen, those nutrients can be preserved. You pick the food when it’s ripe, and enjoy it on your dinner plate within the hour.
Having a winter vegetable garden doesn’t mean you’ll be planting in the dead of winter. Rather, you’ll be harvesting in the winter. While you won’t be very successful with some plants like melons, tomatoes, peppers or corn, other plants thrive in colder temperatures. Lettuce, radishes, chives, peas, cabbage, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, carrots, parsnips, and many, many more delicious veggies grow wonderfully in cooler temperatures. These late-season crops use less water, have less pesky bugs, and some produce, like carrots and beets, can be “stored” outside on the plant, instead of in the refrigerator.
When planning for the fall and winter harvests plants, the most important date to consider will be the “first frost” date. You’ll need to have the plants established enough to withstand the light frosts when they come. Most winter vegetables will be planted in late summer or early fall. A good general guideline is to check how many days to maturity and subtract back from the “first frost” date to know just when to plant. Carrots, parsnips, and other root plants can continue to grow after the first frost. Other plants, like brussels sprouts, actually become sweeter when they finish maturing just after the light frost.
Covering the plants with some basic plastic tenting will give you several more weeks of good harvest time before the plants finally succumb to winter. Grow boxes and “square foot gardening” are becoming more and more popular and you can easily build another frame with a glass cover to put over the top of the box for a quick and simple green house.
You don’t need to designate a separate winter garden area from your typical summer garden. Most produce from your summer garden will be harvested in August, leaving an empty space for your winter crops to go in. Seeds can even be planted just before frost all over your yard and garden. As soon as it begins to warm up just a bit in the spring, the seeds will germinate and may even pop up before you would normally have seeds in the ground.