Feb 212011

One of the great pleasures on a cold winter day is browsing through seed catalogs. I love to see the beautiful photos and imagine how different plants would look in my garden.

You can buy seeds locally, but catalogs often carry varieties that are hard to find in the neighborhood garden center or big box store.  For example, I can find cornfield beans that grow in semi-shade, a dazzling array of melons from around the world and peppers sized to grow in containers. A good catalog also provides information about how to grow different plants.

Periodically I need to remind myself that seed catalogs are written by professionals in order to sell products. In order to keep my seed purchases within a reason budget, I developed a few strategies.

Inventory current seeds

Many commercial seeds, if stored well, are usable for several years after they are purchased. Seeds need to be kept from heat and humidity. I store my seed collection in covered airtight containers in the refrigerator. A small amount of silica gel (from a craft store) wrapped in a paper towel, several tissues or a bit of fabric absorbs excess humidity. You can also use the packets of drying material that comes in many vitamin bottles.

However some vegetable seeds only keep one to two years, such as:

  • sweet corn
  • onions
  • leeks
  • chives
  • Swiss chard
  • parsley
  • okra
  • parsnips.

Pelleted seeds also are short-lived.

Think about last year’s garden

What worked? What didn’t? Were there any gaps? Each year I try to keep a running list of the hits and misses in my garden. The Cloud Nine eggplants were prolific, but I wished they were open-pollinated instead of hybrids. I didn’t like last year’s zucchini selection. And last fall I wished for some peppers and tomatoes that were planted in containers that could be brought inside on cold nights.

Plan the garden

A garden plan doesn’t have to be perfectly scaled or incredibly detailed. Even rough sketches indicating major plantings help me decide what seeds are needed and how much to buy.

Prioritize the wish list

Every year, there are more seeds and plants I’d like to try than my budget or garden space will allow. So I fall back on an old-fashioned technique: I prioritize my want list. What seeds do I need? What seeds do I most want to get this year and what ones can wait for another time? After all, as baseball fans say, there’s always next year.

Sep 272010

Your garden doesn’t have to end when frost nips the tomatoes and squash. If you provide your plants with some protection from the cold, you can grow a wide array of vegetables that thrive in cool weather. Here’s a sample of what you can plant for your fall and winter garden.


Lettuce grows easily in spring and fall. These are the seasons for both heading lettuce and loose-leaf varieties. But don’t try to keep big heads of lettuce through a cold winter. They may turn to mush. Instead plant leaf lettuce close together and harvest the leaves while they are small. Choose lettuce varieties bred to stand the cold, such as Arctic King, Winter Density, Marvel of Four Seasons (Merveille des Quatre Saisons), Brune d’Hiver and Little Gem. However why limit your salads to just lettuce? There are so many other salad greens that love cool weather:

  • Belgium endive (witloof endive)
  • Sugarloaf endive
  • escarole
  • arugula
  • rocket (sometimes spelled roquette)
  • spinach
  • radicchio
  • cress (both upland cress and garden cress)
  • mizuna
  • mache (sometimes know as corn salad or lamb’s lettuce)
  • miner’s lettuce (claytonia)

Root vegetables

Many root vegetables can be harvested all winter long:

  • carrots
  • beets
  • turnips
  • rutabagas
  • radishes, especially daikon and black Spanish radishes
  • leeks
  • scallions
  • bunching onions, potato onions and walking onions
  • parsnips
  • mangels

Mangels? What’s a mangel? It’s a sweet beet used for animal feed. However some mangels were bred for their fine flavor. Bountiful Gardens has seeds for them.

Onions are grown in different season, depending on where you garden. Here in the South, fall is the traditional time to plant onion seed for early-summer harvests. In the North, they’re spring sown. On the other hand, in both the North and the South, garlic is planted in the fall for harvesting the following summer.

Some root veggies like turnips, kohlrabi and beets can be grown for their greens as well as their roots.

Greens for Cooking

For winter green vegetables, nothing beats the cabbage family. They love cool weather. There are many different member of the cabbage clan to try:

  • cabbages, both green and red
  • Chinese cabbage
  • broccoli
  • gai lohn (Chinese broccoli)
  • kale
  • cauliflower, one of the fussier cabbages to grow
  • tatsoi
  • mustard greens
  • pak choy
  • bok choy
  • Brussels sprouts
  • and that epitome of southern green veggies: collards

Not all cold-tolerant green vegetables are members of the cabbage tribe, although sometimes it seems that way. Spinach and Swiss chard grow happily in fall and winter. Swiss chard is so hardy, that during mild winters, it will grow in my zone 7b garden without any protection.

Beans and Peas

You may be able to squeeze a fall crop of peas in between the hot days of summer and a killing frost. Use disease resistant varieties. In mild winter area, pea plants can be over-wintered. In spring, the plants revive and will produce an early crop of peas. 

You can eat fava beans from your winter garden—with or without the Chianti. A warning: a few people, mainly of Mediterranean heritage, can have a deadly allergic reaction to fava beans.


Finally don’t forget to plant some herbs, such as:

  • parsley
  • chervil
  • thyme
  • sage
  • oregano

In mild areas, rosemary can grow outdoors, under with some protection from frost. Chives and lemon balm disappear during the coldest winter days, but are among the first plants to reappear in early spring.

Aug 272010

Imagine eating fresh vegetables from your garden all winter long. You don’t have to live in Florida or southern California to harvest fresh vegetables in January. Many people famous for their cold-weather gardens live in the northern parts of the U.S.

In most parts of the U.S. and in many countries, there is sufficient daylight to harvest vegetables year round. The key is the word “harvest”. Vegetables grow slowly during the short days of autumn. Even the hardiest vegetables stop growing during the weeks surrounding the winter solstice. But while new growth isn’t possible during those weeks, harvesting fresh vegetables is. If you plant vegetables so that they will be ready to pick by the shortest winter days and protect them from freezing, you can eat fresh vegetables from your garden even during the coldest days.

There are three steps to fall and winter gardening success.

Choose the right vegetables for winter gardening.

Unless you live where the winter is warm, you need to plant the right vegetables, ones that will thrive- or at least survive-in freezing temperatures. Think carrots, broccoli, leeks and salad greens, not tomatoes, corn and squash.

Plant on time

Next plant your vegetables at the correct time to make sure they will be ready to harvest during the winter.  Since the days grow shorter as winter approaches, plants grow more slowly than they do in the spring.  Look on the seed packages to see the time each plant takes from seed to harvest in the spring. Then add extra time.  How much extra time will be specific to your area.  When starting out, plant your seeds over several weeks. Then keep track of how long each planting took to grow. Write it down in your garden journal or in a file on your computer. Next year you can use that information to know when to plant.

Protect your plants

Finally protect your homegrown bounty from the wind and freezing temperatures.  You can use row covers, cold frames, mini-greenhouses, solar cones,  plastic tunnels and hoop houses.  Eliot Coleman combines both row covers and an unheated greenhouse to keep his plants safe from the cold Maine winters.

Winter gardens are easier to tend than summer one. You don’t have to water much. Insect problems are reduced. Since your garden is under cover, you don’t have to worry about deer,  rabbits and raccoons beating you to the harvest. And you have the fun of eating lovely fresh-from-your-garden vegetables in the middle of winter.