Think Now About Doing a Winter Garden This Year

I am not talking about a garden grown under a cloche or in a green house; I’m talking about a garden grown totally exposed to the elements!  Of course, if you plan to “eat” food during the winter, then you will have to protect the plants from the cold.  But, if you only intend to get a huge head start on everyone else, including the bugs, then starting a early spring garden this fall is worth a try.

Every year I start a garden plot of cold hardy veggies for harvest in the late winter or early spring.  Oh sure, occasionally that plot will fail, but most often it works great.  Last year’s early bed was outstanding!  By the time everyone else was just starting to plant their spring veggies my early bed was completely packed tight with veggie leaves growing over a foot high.

Most gardeners think that it is winter’s cold that kills their plants.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  In fact, the colder the temps the better such a garden will do.  It turns out that the biggest threat to such an exposed garden is, indeed, snow cover that insulates the ground from the cold while shading the young plants.  Because the young plants can be insulated from the cold by the snow they may be warm enough to still grow but cannot find the sunlight under the snow so they grow spindly and long, and are readily killed by the sun and cold later after the snow melts.  Young, healthy seedlings exposed to subzero temperatures seem to go into a frozen hibernation like astronauts heading to the far side of the galaxy in some science fiction movie only to be woken up during some midwinter thaw to grow a bit before going back to sleep again when it gets cold again.

I do not know why most gardeners have become convinced that growing young plants right through the middle of winter isn’t possible, but we have been eating much better and earlier in the year as a result of doing so.  My favorite veggies for such a garden plot include: spinach, leaf lettuce, cilantro, all of the brassicas (kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, etc.), sweet, snap and snow peas, dill, and others.  I never try to grow most of these things in rows, as I’m proud to be a gardener, not a farmer.  I simply prep the soil like I would have done in the spring, widely scatter smaller seeds throughout the bed, carefully work them into the soil with a rake, and tamp them down with the back of the rake.   I then hand plant any larger seeds (i.e., peas) in a grid on six inch centers by pushing them down thumb deep and punching each one with my fist to “seat” the seed.  I then thoroughly water in the bed with a hose-end rose (watering wand) and scatter a little peat moss over the top to help maintain moisture for germination.

Planting garlic in such a bed is a no-brainer, as it is traditionally grown over the winter anyway.  To plant the garlic I twist a bulb digger (which I pre-spray with WD-40 or PAM) about six inches deep into the soil, compact the loose soil inside the digger with my fingers before extracting a soil plug.  I then drop a little bulb fertilizer or bone meal into the hole, and place a large garlic clove (pointy end up) into its bottom before dumping the soil plug out of the back of the digger back into the hole (and, again) lightly punch it with my fist to compact the soil around the clove.  I like to plant garlic in a line along the outside edge of the (raised) bed to ultimately create an attractive border that repels pests, and is easy to harvest after the rest of the bed is done in early July.  I like to plant the cloves six inches to a foot apart – the wider the spacing the larger the garlic.  After the bed is completely harvested I usually plant it for the fall.

Planted last fall in a four by ten foot raised bed this year’s early spring garden took less than an hour to prepare and plant.  It produced four different varieties of peas, two kinds of spinach, five varieties of leaf lettuce, a nice, extended crop of cilantro and dill, and garlic.  Karen and I were already eating tender, sweet of this stuff when others were just starting to plant.  Insects? None!  Try your own “experimental” winter garden this year; you’ll be amazed.

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