10 crops to feed you through the Winter
Now more than ever in recent history, people are eager to increase their self resilience by securing their food supply. It only makes sense to take advantage of the space we already have to produce food, whether it's a small balcony, a quaint front or backyard or an expensive country property with acres of free space.
It all amounts to the same basic need. Securing a source of fresh, nutritious and readily available produce to feed ourselves and our loved ones. Experienced gardeners know the feeling well, that deep seated satisfaction of sitting down at the dinner table with a full array of home-grown vegetables in front of them. Few feelings compare to that of sharing a meal with your loved ones based on food you grew yourself. As a mother and a gardener, I get to experience this feeling at every meal, every day, all year round.
And I want you to experience this joy just like I do. It's not always easy to garden in the cold season, but it can certainly be done with a judicious choice of crops, simple and inexpensive protection methods and perhaps the touch of your lucky star!
The cold season is a wonderful, reflective time for gardeners. Pests are practically inexistent in Zones 7 and below and reduced to their minimum activity in the warmer zones as well, although not totally gone. Growth rate is slow and there is little need for the constant watering that made Summer so busy in the garden. The quiet and slow pace of Winter and early Spring is ideal for growing many leafy greens, and as is typical for them, they out-yield most fruiting plants common to the warm weather garden. They are also full of nutrients, vitamins and mineral that our bodies needs.
A Winter Garden can truly make a difference in both our health and our budget. In those short, dark and cold days, having a fresh supply of healthy greens as well as root vegetable is an invaluable source of joy, comfort and even security.
10 crops to feed you through the Winter
Here are my favorite cold hardy crops to grow throughout the winter, in order of descending cold-hardiness. The lower down on the list, the hardiest, most cold resistant the plants are.
Mizuna is in a category all of its own when it comes to a combination of beauty and versatility in the kitchen. The long, deeply serrated leaves along a thin, crunchy spine that never gets stringy. It may not be very well known in North America, but this delicious leafy greens is a staple in many Asian countries.
A patch of Mizuna offers the perfectly pleasing combination of dense nutrition, rich flavor and eye appeal. Mizuna is one of the healthiest vegetables that you can grow, a true super food in every sense of the word, exceptionally high in vitamins C as well as folate and the powerful antioxidant, glucosinolate.
Mizuna is delicious in complex, flavorful salads, harvested at the baby leaf stage or cut into mouth-sized pieces. It also makes a great addition to stir fries and soups when added at the last minute.
While the least cold-hardy vegetable on my list, Mizuna certainly can power through frosts and even a hard freeze. It will die if the temperature drop into the twenties, so it will not overwinter in our Connecticut gardens. Still, harvestable in just over 20 days at the baby leaf stage and able to withstand our early winter and early spring cold weather with cheer, Mizuna has well earned its spot in our list.
Our two favorite Mizunas are Early Mizuna, an extremely cold and heat tolerant variety that grows as fast as a bullet and produces great tasting leaves in record time. Right next to it stands both Red Streak Mizuna and its cousin Crimson Tide Mustard, two highly decorative red and purple mizunas. Their leaves and stems are brightly colored which indicates high levels of the antioxidant, anthocyanin. When grown in cold weather, Crimson Tide becomes almost black it's so dark! A delicious and nutritious addition to your salads in the cold months.
#9 Mustard Greens
The sight of large, giddy, healthy mustard plants covered in frost on a December morning make me smile like few other things in the garden.
Mustard plants, especially Asian mustards, are very cold tolerant and can grow into huge, mystifying plants in the garden. They need fertile soil rich in nitrogen to grow into their best selves, but if given the opportunity, they will make it up to you tenfold!
Mustards like Red Giant Japanese Mustard and Jeok Gak Mustard develop the full depth of their colors when exposed to cold temperature. Exposure to cold weather increases the levels of pigment in their leaves, boosting the levels of the antioxidant anthocyanin famously found in blueberries.
Another staple in our own kitchen garden is Miike Giant Mustard. This gentle giant of the garden grows to dizzying proportion, with dense leaves veined in red and large, crunchy stems that never develop a string. The flavor is exceptional and milder than the red and purple mustards, making for wonderful soups, stir fries and pickled vegetables.
Cold weather also refine their flavors, removing some of the pungent taste and leaving them with a crisp, mildly spicy flavor with garlicky undertones. Those luscious leaves are perfect for soups, stir fries and make wonderful pickled and fermented vegetables. Mustards taste milder when grown in cold weather and are chock full of vitamin A and C as well as other phytonutrients such as glucosinolates. As a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, they can help your body fight cancer with their antioxidant rich compounds found in the pigment
Mustard plants will die when exposed to temperatures in the twenties, but will cruise through frosts and freezes up until New Year's Eve in our Connecticut gardens.
Lettuces offer gardeners a fast and easy way to fill their plates with nutritious greens and most inexperienced gardeners are surprised to learn that the delicate plants are actually very cold hardy! In fact, the cold hardiest of them can survive all through winter unprotected in many parts of the country.
As a general rule, lettuces with frilly leaves such as Lollo Rosso are more resistant to cold than large, flat leaf lettuces. Some varieties of lettuces have been selected to withstand the harsh conditions of winter.
Those lettuces usually have pretty telling signs in their names that foretell their cold-resistant nature. Romaine types such as Winter Density Lettuce and Rouge d'Hivers Lettuce are perfect examples of heirloom lettuces bred through generations to grow in the cold, dark months of winter.
In our Connecticut gardens, we grow a variety of lettuces throughout the winter, both in our greenhouse and out in the unprotected raised bed areas.
#7 Swiss Chard
If I could choose only one vegetable to feature more in America's veggie patch my choice would be Swiss Chard. This delicious and colorful leafy green is a member of the beets family and tastes just as good as beet greens.
Ubiquitous in Europe's vegetable gardens and a staple in early America, Chard is a wonderful vegetable to grow. As a biennal plant, they very seldom go to seed in their first year, unlike lettuces, spinach, tatsoi or mustards.
The variety of colors for Swiss Chard is certain to please gardeners of any experience level, but is especially rewarding for new gardeners. I still remember the pride I felt at the sight of my first Swiss Chard patch, all those ripples, glossy green leaves and brightly colored stems made me feel like an accomplished gardener even though it was my first year. There wasn't much success to boast about in that summer, but my Swiss Chard made up for the bolted lettuces and pest infested cabbage heads that never truly formed.
In our garden, we grow a few unique varieties of Swiss Chard that are always certain to attract the attention - and admiration - of our visitors. The impressive Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard is always a stunning conversation piece, especially when given ample space to grow to its eye-widening 2 feet in height and width. A single leaf of this giant of the vegetable patch is enough for an entire family as a side dish!
We also love to grow the humble looking and sometimes easy to overlook Perpetual Spinach. Perpetual Spinach, although absolutely not a spinach, tastes remarkably similar without all the fuss. Those small chard plants produce rounded, smaller leaves than the other chard types and love to grow planted at a tighter spacing, about 4 inches apart. They will produce their mild, graceful leaves all through the summer and into the depth of winter without fail. If you never tried them before, give them a go!
You can plant Swiss Chard in early spring and it will power through the heat of summer without complaint, especially if you chose a part-shade spot. My favorite bed for Swiss Chard receives between 4 and 6 hours of full sun in summer under the protection of a large maple tree and about the same in early spring, fall and winter when the leaves are gone. It is the ideal condition to grow this easy care vegetable.
Swiss Chard will not overwinter in zones colder than 7 without protection, but will remain alive if given a bit of protection. Even so, it will keep producing leaves long after the first frost.
Arugula earned its place on this list for its fast growth and nutty, delicious flavor. This leafy green is beloved by chefs and home cooks and is also incredible easy to grow.
All arugula needs is a sunny spot, plenty of water and fertile, nitrogen rich soil. The tough little plants will grow fast and produce plenty of delicate, serrated leaves for your winter salads. It is also very cold hardy, more so than most lettuces and with a 20-30 day window from sprout to table, it's hard to find a better suited vegetable for a winter garden.
Anyone who ever disliked the taste of arugula probably ate them when grown in too much heat, which turns the leaves spicy and peppery.
We grow arugula year round in our house and never go without for our daily salads, from October to May.
Many people think of cilantro as a warm weather crop because of its presence in dishes like salsas, tacos, Pho Soup and other cuisines from parts of the world that seldom experience cold winters like we do in America.
The truth is, cilantro is a cool weather crop that can survive in the open, unprotected garden until the temperature drop to the lower twenties.
Cilantro is an easy plant to grow and doesn't need much in terms of soil quality or fertility. This though little plant grows quickly and is happier with a part shade location, meaning the short days of winter will not halt its growth. It is also very easy to grow indoors, bringing this little flavor bomb closer to your kitchen - and your plates.
Many times over the years, I was glad to have taken the time to plant more cilantro as my supply of fresh garden greens diminished from a roar to a trickle. The fateful plants kept producing and the added flavor was a welcome addition to many of our meals. The quality and quantity of the harvest is actually improved by the onset of the cold weather. I grow a thick mat of the tiny plants and harvest the outer leaves when they reach about 6 inches in length, giving more space for the inner leaves to grow. We love it so much in our house that we seldom have too much!
Bunching onions are an often neglected addition to North American cuisine, but this easy going crop is one not to forego.
Bunching onions can easily overwinter in our Connecticut garden without any protection. These though plants provide a pungent addition to soups, salads and any other meal I can think of! We grow loads of them, tightly sown together at about 1 inch apart. They make the perfect cut and come again crop and yield an impressive amount over time.
Bunching onions also grow very well indoors as they appreciate a part-shade location in the garden.
Many varieties are available to gardeners, but I favor the Asian ones for their vigor and impressive size when allowed to grow to their potential. Ishikura Long Winter Bunching Onion and Tokyo Long White Bunching Onion offer both the classic taste of a bunching onion.
When allowed to grow out, Ishikura Bunching Onion can reach 1.5" across and boast a sweet, pungent and refreshing taste. Those crops are beloved staples in many Asian country and if you try them, you will understand why! We use them in stir fries and soups and would not go without.
It should be no surprise that kale sits comfortably in the top 3 of this list! With its health benefits long touted and its cabbagey-sweet taste, kale is a staple in most American gardens.
As a member of the cruciferous family of vegetable, kale is full of fiber, antioxidants, calcium, vitamins C, A and K, iron as well as a wide range of other nutrients that can help prevent various health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer.
All kales are cold hardy and will stroll through a frost and a few freezes without a glitch. If your garden doesn't suffer from temperatures below the mid-twenties, then you have your pick of kale for overwintering!
However, if you garden in zones 6 and below, then a more careful consideration must be taken if your intention if to overwinter your kale plants in the open. My choice of kale for overwintering are Red Russian Kale and its twin, the White Russian Kale, closely followed by the well known Vates Blue Scotch Curled Kale.
All these kales make it through the winter unprotected in our garden. This doesn't mean that they actively grow in the midst of a January blizzard! They are likely to stop their growth and lose their leaves, but comes spring I am always rewarded for my fate in their resilience by a rare treat impossible to find in the grocery stores: tiny "kalettes" bunches, growing like Brussel sprouts along the now large and barren main stem. To grow these tiny delights, I keep my spring planted kale in the garden all summer long, disregarding the pest damage that is inevitable to the July and August months. The plants then grow large and wide, with stems often reaching 3 inches in diameter! This allows the plants to be sturdy enough to survive the winter and produce kalettes in the spring.
Another bonus to this method: kale florets are a wonderful broccoli substitute!
Such a treat is a welcome crop in what is known as the hunger gap, those few months where spring crops are not producing yet and winter crops are long gone.
Spinach sometimes has a reputation as a finicky, hard to grow crop. While spinach has its demands on the gardeners when it comes to fertility and temperature, it is not necessarily a hard crop to grow.
For a successful spinach crop, everything hinges on 2 things: timing and the choice of variety. Spinach is such a popular crop that hundreds of varieties, both hybrids and heirloom, have been refined and commercialized over the years.
Choosing the ones that will grow well in your particular climate can be a hassle, but it will be well worth your time.
After many years of trial, we settled on a unique variety of spinach hailing from France called Monstrueux de Viroflay. This large spinach overwinters in our Connecticut garden with no protection and resists bolting in the spring longer than any other we have tried.
It produces large, delicious leaves all winter and while not especially fast growing, it is well worth the wait when it comes to overall yield.
To harvest a fabulous crop of winter and spring spinach, follow these guidelines: plant your seeds in very fertile soil, rich in nitrogen, about 4 weeks before the first frost. I always make a point to amend my soil with the best compost just before planting my spinach, regardless of previous soil amendment. It's just that demanding!
Spinach seeds will germinate better in damp and cold conditions, so make sure to keep them well watered. Protect your young plants from drying up at all costs and your will be well rewarded just after the first few frosts. The plants will then take off, producing more and more delicious leaves. Pick them often and they will keep yielding!
There it is! My first choice when it comes to cold hardiness and yield all winter long!
Tatsoi is a staple in many Asian countries and is becoming more and more known in America's garden. It's a very good thing because few leafy greens can compare to the sweet, complex flavor of those spoon shaped powerhouse of the garden!
Tatsoi is a true superfood if there ever was one. No other leafy green has as much vitamin A, C, K, iron and calcium as this cute little rosette shaped plant.
It also grows incredibly fast and is heat tolerant to boost, making it a wonderful spring crop.
Children tend to love the taste of the tiny, shiny leaves as well, or at least mine does! There is no bitterness to be found in tatsoi, unlike other leafy greens, only a slight nutty flavor and a crunchy bite.
To grow tatsoi at its best, plant it about 3 weeks before the frost and keep it well watered. It can grow in part shade, but is best in full sun, especially if you intend to overwinter it with no protection. The plant will produce darker, denser leaves in the colder weather and grow close to the ground. This characteristic makes it especially well suited for winter growing.
Harvest the outer leaves as they grow to encourage the plant to produce more.
Did I forget something? What are your choice for winter gardening? Leave me a comment below and I will be sure to answer back!