A guide to cold season growing
Fall has come, and winter is now right around the corner. This time of year is often the hardest for growers of any type. With the frantic rush to harvest, followed by months of down time, the fall and winter seasons can be an emotional roller coaster. However, with the right crops and proper planning, you can keep your garden flourishing through fall and even deep into winter. Here you’ll learn all about how to keep your green thumb active year-round with our helpful cold season crop guide.
Know the frost dates
With the seasonal drop in temperature, the threat of frost consumes the minds of gardeners everywhere, but especially to growers in northern regions. Many growers in the northern regions may know that missing the first frost date by just one day may be all it takes to kill beans, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and a number of other non-frost tolerant crops. For those that have grown in the same location for years, determining your frost date can be done by marking your calendar each year. After writing down the first frost date for approximately three years, you will be able to determine the first frost almost to the day. For those that are new to gardening or have recently moved to a new area, stop by www.almanac.com, and use the frost date calculator to help you approximate the first frost.
While it is important to pay attention to the date of the first frost, with a garden that is properly prepared with frost tolerant crops, you will need to be more concerned with a hard frost as opposed to a light frost. Light frost occurs when temperatures are between 28-32 degrees Fahrenheit, and are of great concern for non-frost tolerant crops. The season’s first frost will most often be a light frost, so the crops affected will be fruiting or young, non-mature crops.
A hard frost occurs when temperatures drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is when highly frost tolerant crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, spinach and kale, flourish. For the best success with these crops, be sure to plant them with plenty of time to reach maturity before the first frost. For late-maturing crops, this means that planting approximately 90 days before the first frost is necessary, while early-maturing crops will be planted roughly 30 days before frost. When planted early, your crops will have reached maturity by the time cold weather and frost arrives. If planted too late and exposed to frost when immature, even highly frost tolerant crops are subject to damage and are at risk of being killed. Planting early allows your crops to adjust to the colder temperatures, which increases their ability to survive when the weather becomes colder.
When planning to grow in the colder seasons, it is important to select crops that prefer cooler weather. Some of the best crops for cold weather are:
- Brussels sprouts
- Swiss chard
- Fava beans
These crops, along with several others, have all proven to produce best in cold weather. In fact, parsnips are actually best when harvested in mid-January to early February, as the heavy amount of frost adds sweetness.
Preparing your garden
Cold frames, high tunnels, greenhouses and raised beds are widely accepted as the best ways to retain heat and prevent frost damage. However, while growing within a covered environment is of course optimal, it is not always possible, and if you are focusing on producing cold season crops, you will likely be producing completely outdoors. There are a few things you can do to prepare your soil beforehand to ensure that it performs its best when the temperature drops.
Adding windbreaks or walls to the north side of your plot can help increase your garden’s temperature by approximately 10-15 degrees. These features work by reducing wind and cool breezes throughout the plot, while also reflecting heat from the sun back into the garden. This will help keep the soil temperature up slightly.
Cloches are another way to prevent frost damage, but with a cloche you are only able to protect plants individually or in rather small clusters. Most commonly, a cloche is a small, solitary enclosure that is placed over the top of crops. Cloches work by trapping air inside the container, which prevents cold air from directly coming in contact with the crop. The largest issue with a cloche is that it is small, and the temperature inside the enclosure may rise and fall quickly, exposing the crop to extreme high and low temperatures, potentially within the same day.
Whether you are producing cold weather crops or not, be sure to properly mulch your garden before the frost sets in. For cold weather crops, fresh mulch provides a vital layer of protection to the roots and also prevents erosion during a heavy-winter rain. For winter mulching, peat moss, bark, sawdust and shredded newspaper are recommended. Adding one to two inches of a mulch combination to your garden prior to frost will properly prepare the soil for the upcoming winter. It is also important to rotate your plant layout each winter season. Certain crops can drain the soil of essential nutrients, and by replanting the same crop in the same location each year, the soil may lack the nutrition needed. Be sure to plant your crops in new areas each season, as this will keep your soil healthy and help prevent diseases year after year.
Frost often puts a damper on the growing season, but with proper preparation and planning, fall and winter can be an equally enjoyable gardening season. While it may be too late to start your cold weather crops this year, plan ahead for next year and enjoy your winter harvest.