Winter Vegetable Gardening for Mild Climates


By Dave Whitinger

Where we live in Texas, many of the annual food crops that we like to eat are sensitive to heat and long days, and they therefore can't be grown during most of what we call "the growing season." Spinach and lettuce get scorched by the sun, broccoli quickly bolts into flower, and many other plants just sit and pout, refusing to grow. The solution to this is winter gardening! When the days get short and the shadows are long, we start getting serious about growing these winter delicacies.

But what about freezing weather?

The great thing about winter vegetables is that they don't get killed by frost. In fact, many winter vegetables can survive temperatures into the teens. Many plants, especially lettuce, will lose some of their leaves to a really bad freeze, but the plant itself will survive and soon send up new leaves. The decreased hours of sunlight do mean that they grow a little more slowly than you might like, but if you're patient you can pull off some impressive gardening during the dead of winter!

Lettuce: This leafy green can only be grown in the winter for us, and as mentioned above, it is also somewhat weak against severe frost. We like to start our lettuce indoors in late fall and transplant them into the garden as little plants. Keep them well watered, and if the temperatures are going to go into the 20's or below, consider using a frost blanket to protect them. As the days begins to lengthen in January, they will start growing and you'll be eating nice salads in late January and beyond.

I treat Spinach exactly the same way as lettuce, although I find it doesn't need nearly the same kind of protection from freezes. We love the Spinach (Spinacia oleracea 'Gigante d'Inverno') variety and find that it grows quickly and just sits and waits for us to harvest and eat it whenever we want it.

These leafy vegetables are small and unassuming plants, and they can be grown in unusual places. Do you have a dormant flower garden? That's a fine place to grow some winter vegetables. Most varieties of lettuce are beautiful, with striking colors and interesting patterns, and would provide an excellent ornamental choice for winter.

Peas are a crop that we can never seem to grow enough of. These delicate garden vegetables are much more challenging to grow because they do get bitten by frost and will get set way back if cold temperatures punish them before they have had a chance to get some good growth. We direct-seed these during late winter, at the very end of January or early in February. They will grow nice vines for a couple months and reward us with a great harvest in April. We grow Snap Pea (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon 'Sugar Snap') in a hugelkultur raised bed that lies between the house and our milking barn, where we walk past it twice a day. The peas are so sweet when eaten raw that we nearly never bring this harvest indoors . We will often pick a handful on the way to the barn and munch on them while performing our milking chores. The children relish being turned out on a row of peas to eat their fill.

Thumb of 2013-04-22/dave/5cbb1cWinter is also the time for most root crops. Radishes and turnips are easy to grow. Direct seed where you want them and you'll be harvesting within a month. Radishes, especially, are an excellent vegetable to let children grow. The early return provides a positive encouragement to the little gardeners in your life.

People are often surprised to learn that you can grow carrots all through the winter. Start them in very late summer or early fall by direct sowing the seeds right among your summer vegetables. They will germinate and start to grow but remain very small until the weather turns cool, and then they start putting on the real growth. All winter they'll sit and grow (and can be harvested) and in the early to mid spring they'll put on the real final growth. In addition to the periodic snacking through the winter, we like to pick them all at once in late spring, clean them and put them in the freezer for use in cooking through the rest of the year.

Although I love the flavor of Carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus 'Nantes') , I can never seem to get it to grow really well for us. My wife Trish has enjoyed great and consistent success, however, with Carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus 'Danvers Half Long') . Many people like to grow radishes and carrots together. You seed them both in the same place and the fast-germinating radishes will quickly remind you where you sowed the carrots. This is especially helpful because carrots are frustratingly slow to germinate, sometimes taking a month or longer before they finally emerge!

Potatoes and onions are planted about the same time, for us in late January. We always take the easy route and obtain the seed potatoes and onion starts from the local feed store. Potatoes are a lot like the peas in that the tops will get hit by very heavy frost, but should that happen, don't despair! The potato plants will send up new growth as soon as the warmer temperatures return. We always grow Potato (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec') with great success.

What else? Brassicas, of course! Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, a constellation of interesting cabbage varieties, Kohlrabi, the list goes on and on, and all these cole crops grow great during the winter for us in the south. We like to grow these as starts, germinating them indoors, and transplant them into the garden. You can grow them in the fall for an early winter harvest, and then again in very early spring for an April harvest.

Every region is different and it's hard to give a prescription that fits all gardeners reading this article. All Things Plants has an excellent gardening planting calendar that you can use. You enter in your location and it tells you everything you could want to know: when your frosts are expected, what you can grow, and when you should start them. Check that out at

Happy Winter Gardening!

About Dave Whitinger
Thumb of 2020-03-17/dave/72728eDave is the Executive Director of National Gardening Association.
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