Growing Vegetables in the Winter (HINT: Start Now!)

Growing Vegetables in WinterThis post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, and at no cost to you, I earn from qualifying purchases made through some links. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

PLEASE NOTE: While it may seem odd to publish a piece about winter gardening in the middle of July, now is actually the time to begin planning your winter (or fall) garden. Read on for more information!


When I first started homesteading, my goal was to grow all my family's vegetables, eating lots of them fresh in the late spring, summer, and fall, and preserving the rest for winter and early spring food. It was a lofty goal, to be sure - more ambitious than I realized at the time. And it's really only been in the last few years that I've learned to truly appreciate winter gardening and the fact that I don't need to spend countless hours preserving veggies for the "off-season." Instead, I can pluck vegetables directly out of our garden in the midst of winter. 

But...growing vegetables in winter? Surely that's not possible? Ah, my friends, it's completely doable - and without a fancy hothouse or supplemental lighting! As organic market gardening guru Eliot Coleman writes in his book The Winter Harvest Handbook, "It's a misconception that all vegetable crops need summerlike temperatures for best growth...Not only do many of them tolerate cold conditions and even temperatures well below freezing...they actually thrive and are sweeter, tenderer, and more flavorful" when grown in winter. 

Although it astonishes many, a good portion of people in the United States can grow vegetables in winter without much effort. If you're in USDA gardening zones 5 and up, the vegetables I mention in this article should do well in your winter garden. But even if your winter temperatures drop below -15 degrees F., these plants will still grow for you; they'll just need some added protection to survive. 

Fresh kale harvested during a snowy winter.

How Much Protection Does Your Winter Garden Need? 

For winter gardening, it helps tremendously to choose slower-growing varieties, as these plants tend to have more resistance to frost and snow. Therefore, instead of choosing, say, Lancelot leeks (which mature in a relatively speedy 70 days), you might instead select Giant Musselburgh (which takes 105 days to reach maturity). For most plants mentioned in this article, I've suggested varieties that are suitable for winter gardening - but don't feel these are the only varieties you can grow during winter. When looking at seed catalogs, you can spot potential winter garden varieties by looking for longer-growing types that have "winter" in their name, are noted as being cultivated in a cold region (such as Alaska or Russia), or are described as "cold hardy."

Also, even if you live in a gardening zone where winter gardens are a breeze, keep an eye on your local weather. If temperatures drop below 25 degrees F. and are expected to stay there - or drop even further - it's important to mulch over your plants. When a thick layer of straw or dry leaves is applied over soil that isn't already frozen, and also placed over growing plants, the mulch significantly warms the vegetables, preventing damage from cold. 

If you live up North and get many feet of snow each winter, you're probably not eager to trek outside and shovel that snow in order to harvest a few carrots. So I recommend that you get creative. For example, while an unheated greenhouse or hoop house might be ideal, a few cold frames, low tunnels (sometimes called polytunnels), or cloches can give you a nice supply of fresh veggies for winter. Even putting a few pots in a sheltered area, like your covered porch, may give you a place to winter garden without much fuss. 

No matter where you live, though, it's best to avoid picking food from your garden when the soil is frozen solid. In some cases (collards, come to mind) this might be okay if you're going to cook and eat the food immediately. But generally speaking, it's better to wait to harvest until freezing temperatures have passed and the plants thaw naturally in situ. 

While much of my garden is dormant during winter, I still harvest plenty of fresh veggies.

Timing Is Everything 

The key to making winter gardening work is to get your seeds or seedlings in the ground long before winter. The natural decrease in light in winter means that plants do little to no growing during these months. Instead, they just sit there, in a sort of hibernation, waiting to be harvested (or waiting to go to seed when spring comes). Therefore, aim to have your winter crops at full maturity when daylight drops to 10 hours or less per day. (This is sometimes called "The Persephone Period," referencing Greek methodology's harvest goddess, Persephone.) If your crops are at about 75% maturity when the Persephone Period begins, they won't reach full maturity until there are more than 10 hours of daylight available.

You can learn when your Persephone Period is by looking at the sunrise and sunset dates for your area; your local extension office can provide this information, as can many weather apps. Next, check your seed packets for each plant variety's "days to maturity;" use that figure to count backward from the start of your Persephone Period. Finally, add 2 or 3 weeks as a hedge against slow growth. This date is the very last day you should plant that crop for your winter garden. 

Do note that once the Persephone Period ends, winter vegetables are likely to bolt (i.e., grow flowers and go to seed), which tends to make the edible parts of the plant bitter or woody. You can delay this problem by cutting off any flower buds as soon as they appear. However, once bolting begins, it's time to harvest (and perhaps preserve) as much as possible before the plants become good only for livestock or the compost pile. Perhaps it's specific to my region, but I also find that once the Persephone Period ends, aphids tend to attack my bolting plants. I deal with this by promptly giving our chickens affected leaves or whole plants. This stops pests in their tracks - and gives my hens a much-loved winter treat. (For more tips on dealing with aphids, see this article on organic pest control.)

Carrots harvested in winter.

What to Grow in a Winter Garden 

CARROTS and PARSNIPS: Did you know that carrots and parsnips, like most crops we'll be looking at in this article, actually taste sweeter when harvested in the winter? That's because these plants convert some of their starches to sugar in order to protect their cells from freezing; as a result, their flavor improves. In my zone 7 garden, I like to plant carrots and parsnips in the spring, then harvest them as needed all summer, fall, and winter - literally leaving them in the ground until needed. In very cold weather, don't be alarmed if the leaves of these plants die back; their edible roots are still perfectly edible. 

Eskimo, Napoli, and Little Finger are nice choices for winter carrots. For parsnips, consider White Spear, Warrior, Gladiator, and Albion. 

GREEN ONIONS: If you plant onions in the fall, you can clip off their green tops to use as green onions (a.k.a. scallions) all winter long. (Just be sure to always leave behind at least two leaves.) If you stop harvesting the greens in the late winter or early spring, the plant roots will develop into full-sized onions, ready to harvest that summer or fall, depending upon the variety you're growing. 

For best results in the winter garden, look for onion seeds or starts that are labeled as "overwintering;" most will be "long-day" types. Bridger, Walla Walla, Hi-Keeper, Electric, and Tough Ball are popular choices. 

Winter leeks and parsnips.

LEEKS: Leeks are a quintessential winter crop, but not all varieties are as hardy as others. In general, look for types that have thick stems, which better resist cold damage. 

Durabel, Tadorna, Giant Musselburgh, and Bandit are some of the most cold hardy leeks available. 

Winter beets.

BEETS: I always seem to have some spring-planted beets that aren't mature by fall. I leave them in the ground over winter and by early spring, they are of edible size. Of course, you can also time your beets so they mature right before the Persephone Period, and then harvest beets as needed throughout the winter. Just watch their growth, especially as daylight hours begin increasing; if the beets get huge, they will likely be too woody to eat. You can also grow winter beets just for their tasty leaves. 

For winter gardening, Lutz is a popular variety, as is Detroit Dark Red. 

Turnips are a great winter crop.

TURNIPS and RUTABEGAS: These vegetables improve in the cold months, and provide not only their tasty root, but nutritious leaves that can be eaten like spinach or kale. (Don't worry if the leaves feel prickly; those prickles disappear as soon as the leaves are cooked.) Eventually, both turnips and rutabagas get woody if you let them sit in the garden too long, but they are usually slower to do this than are beets. 

For winter gardening, try Purple Top or All Top turnips, as well as Helanor or Marion rutabagas. 

Brussels sprouts harvested in winter.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS: If you grow your own Brussels sprouts, you're in for a real treat; they taste so much better than the Brussels sold at grocery stores! For best flavor, wait to harvest them until after a good hard frost. Brussels sprout plants will last in the garden all winter long, unless they get buried in snow. 

To avoid the plant's large leaves from getting mushy and making a mess on the round heads we like to eat, pick them off and eat them (like any other leafy green) as the heads mature. (Or, if you prefer, toss them to your livestock or into your compost pile.) If your Brussels sprout heads look unappealing due to weather damage, just peel back the first couple of layers of leaves on each head, revealing fresh, quite edible food. 

Some great varieties for cold weather include Igor, Redarling, Snowdrop Kalettes, and Red Rubine. 

Kohlrabi and winter radishes.

KOHLRABI: As long as you don't get enough snow to bury the plant, kohlrabi will sit in the garden all winter, waiting to be harvested as needed. Don't forget that their leaves are edible, too. Eventually, the bulb part will get woody, so it's smart to finish harvesting your kohlrabi before the days begin lengthening. 

I find that both Giant Winter and Superschmelz varieties do well in winter gardens. 

Collard leaves after a hard frost.

KALE and COLLARDS: Both of these leafy greens sit very well in the winter garden, but collards survive snow considerably better. I plant both in the spring, and then harvest all summer, fall, and winter. 

For winter kale, Wild Siberian (sometimes called Wild Russian kale) is my favorite, but Winterbor, Siber Frills, and Scarlet are also popular choices. For collards, consider Top Chop, Champion, and Georgian Southern. 

Cabbage harvested in winter.

CABBAGE: Although the outer leaves, which aren't typically eaten (although they are perfectly edible if steamed or sliced thin and then cooked) will die back, the head of cabbage itself will survive in the garden as long as the plant isn't buried in snow. Expect to peel back a few outer layers of leaves, which will be damaged by cold temps. I plant my cabbage in the spring to enjoy all the way through to the early days of the following spring. 

Some particularly cold hardy cabbages include Danish Ballhead, Late Flat Dutch, and Tundra. 

Freshly harvested Jerusalem artichokes.

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES: Although the above-ground parts of this plant (which look a lot like sunflowers) will die back in the fall, the tuber remains quite edible all winter long. If you're unfamiliar with Jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes), the tubers look something like a bumpy potato - and while they have a flavor that's unique from potatoes, they are eaten in the same ways (i.e., mashed, baked, fried, etc). 

Be aware that a common and deserved nickname for this plant is "fartichokes;" however, eating the tubers after a hard frost makes them easier to digest - as does fermenting them into pickles. Jerusalem Artichokes also reproduce easily; because they can sometimes take over a garden, I recommend growing them only in raised beds or containers. 

If your local gardening centers don't have Jerusalem Artichoke tubers to use as "seed," try looking for them in grocery stores - especially higher-end markets, or shops that focus on a wide variety of fresh produce. Store-bought tubers can be planted as seed, directly in the ground. 

Crops Requiring a Little More Protection

The following plants will also provide winter harvests, but if you get sustained hard frost or snow, they will need some protection, such as a low tunnel, cold frame, or unheated greenhouse. 

Swiss chad after a hard frost. Courtesy of .

LETTUCE, SPINACH, MUSTARD GREENS, and SWISS CHARD: Although non-gardeners think of lettuce and spinach as things that grow well all year long, they both grow best in cool weather. This makes them ideal for spring, fall, and yes, winter gardens. Likewise, Swiss chard and mustard greens thrive when overwintered. 

For lettuce, Little Gem, Prizehead, Red Montpelier, or Royal Oakleaf are good winter garden choices. For winter spinach, consider Giant Winter or Bloomsdale Savoy. For mustard greens, try Green in Snow and Pizzo. And for chard, consider Bietola a Costa Fine, Joy's Midnight, and Rainbow. 

Bok choy can be grown in winter. Courtesy of J.

BOK CHOY: This cool-season crop doesn't mind colder temps, and if started in the summer (for fall planting), will likely provide multiple cuttings of crisp leaves and stalks. 

For winter gardening, consider Baby Choi or Yellow Heart Winter varieties. 

RADISHES: Most radishes don't do well in low temperatures, but if you select a winter variety, they will become a favorite in the colder months. Don't neglect to eat their tasty leaves, too! 

Consider Daikon, Runder Schwarzer, or Spanish Black radishes for winter gardening. 

Broccoli and cauliflower can be harvested in early winter. Courtesy of Ella.

BROCCOLI and CAULIFLOWER: Of all the plants listed in this article, broccoli and cauliflower are the trickiest to grow in the winter garden. While both pants love growing during cooler months, they don't last long when left to sit in the garden. Therefore, it's especially important to check on these plants daily. For best flavor, both broccoli and cauliflower should be harvested when the head's buds are still tightly bunched together; if they show any sign of separating from each other, harvest immediately. Don't forget that broccoli and cauliflower leaves and stems are edible, too. 

Be sure to choose winter varieties such as Snowball Y, English Winter, or Candid Charm cauliflower or Emerald Crown, Purple Sprouting, Rudolf, Sequoia, or Waltham 29 broccoli. 


Once you understand winter vegetable gardening, I think you'll be delighted by the results. While most homesteaders are stuck eating canned, dried, or frozen veggies, you'll be eating fresh vegetables in the cold, dark days of winter! 





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