Fall Planting and Winter Gardening for Your Zone
Did you need a project for the weekend? Is “need” really the correct verb for the previous sentence? Either way, it’s time to get planting in the garden if you want winter and even some spring produce! The first thing you need to know is your USDA Hardiness Zone.
The map gives you a general idea, but it’s best to visit their site and type in your zip code to find the correct zone. Once you know that, you’ll also know your winter low temperature range. Mine is an 8a, so any of you with lower temperature ranges than 10-15° F either need to begin this process earlier (next year, that is) or be prepared to do more frost protection. We will talk about methods for that in a later post. You also need to be real about what you can and can’t keep alive given your particular gardening setup. Even though I may be able to keep a tomato plant alive in my backyard all winter (don’t put it past me, I may try it one day) I will have more success with crops that are less frost sensitive.
Now, here is RULE 1 when it comes to “winter gardening:” IT’S SUNLIGHT MORE THAN TEMPERATURE THAT DETERMINES SUCCESS. So, technically, you should all go out and figure out your latitude on a map and then base when you begin your winter plantings on that number. The further north you are, the earlier you must plant to get the growth necessary before low temperatures set in and light is at a minimum for your area. Once you’ve reached that point in the calendar year where you feel like the days are significantly shorter than during the summer growing season, your plants will not grow significantly. The idea is to get the growth taken care of BEFORE this happens so there is something to harvest.
Here is THE BIG SECRET about fall/winter gardening: IN MANY WAYS IT’S EASIER TO GARDEN DURING THE FALL AND WINTER. The bugs die off (literally), you use less water and there are less weeds. Everything is a little slower paced and more manageable. Once I get past the motivation to get it planted, my fall garden is probably my most rewarding of them all, which brings us back to that project you wanted (?) to do this weekend.
Here are some ideas for quick-growing winter crops that most of us can still get in the ground:
Beets. We always have a bowl of steaming, buttered beets on our Thanksgiving table. I absolutely LOVE the tradition of going out and pulling the last of our beets out just before the holiday. It feels like the perfect way to remember that this has always been a day of gratitude for what we already have . If you’re thinking your kids won’t like them, trust me when I say that beets grown in the cool weather of fall are like eating sugar. If they (or you) still aren’t convinced, try explaining that only those people who eat their beets all gone get to have pink-colored pee the next day. That ought to at least get them listening. Look for varieties with a shorter “days to harvest” number or those specifically advertised for fall planting.
Spinach. Clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys a good spinach salad. I’ve got some leaf miners who are already feasting on the fall garden, but they’re nothing a little B.t. can’t handle. (For more on that, read what I had to say here.) I’d much rather deal with a few miners than eat a pesticide-drenched salad, anyway. With a good head-start, your spinach will be the rock star of your fall/winter/spring garden. Spinach planted and kept alive through winter will grow gangbusters the next spring. The root system is already developed, and it takes off as soon as the temperatures and light even begin suggesting spring. Plus, you can continue to harvest spinach all winter long in most climates, with little to no frost protection. Look for varieties that specifically mention “winter” and save those heat tolerant varieties for your later spring plantings.
Carrots. One of my children is personally offended if we do not always have carrots growing in our garden. Even when I lived in Zone 5B with a winter low temperature range of -15 to -10 we kept carrots in the ground and harvested them all winter long. It was muddy, but worth it. Again, look for shorter germination to harvest times for fall plantings.
Quick-growing crops (Herbs, radishes, lettuce). It’s not too late to get a few more batches of cilantro out of your patch of garden, or to finally get some radishes that aren’t so spicy (the heat adds to their zip). Choose mixes of lettuce for a quick micro-greens crop before the first frost.
Garlic. Plant it soon and harvest it during late spring to early summer next year. I haven’t done this yet because it’s a little too early where I live.
More on how to frost protect during the frozen months will come later on. For now, get out there and scratch a little soil up and plant some seeds this weekend. Your winter menu will thank you for it!