All of the recent snow, sleet, and freezing rain has made me reflect again on just how brave and resilient so many of our vegetables are! Last week, looking out into my vegetable garden, I could see a thick layer of ice coating every surface. And while I new this meant the bitter end of our lettuce planting, I also knew that most of the vegetables I had planted for a winter harvest would be just fine (!!!) when the ice finally melted away. And sure enough, assessing the damage this week, I was heartened and relieved to see that I was right: The Winter vegetable garden is going strong.
So in honor of these fearless Winter vegetables I present to you: 5 Hardy Vegetables for your Winter Garden...
Believe it or not, many root vegetables are at their peak of flavor and sweetness during the Winter months, and none is more versatile or important in my kitchen than carrots. I dedicate a large patch of my winter garden to carrots each Fall knowing that if I time my planting right, I can be harvesting carrots from October-March! As with all Winter vegetables, the timing of planting (late Summer-early Fall) is very important. I plant my Winter carrots from seeds around August 1st to be sure that they mature before cold temperatures and shorter days set in. My favorite varieties for Winter harvest are Yaya and Napoli.
Kale is another absolute must for me in the Winter. There are many different varieties of kale, and most are suitable for winter production. Kale is in the "Brassica" or "Crucifer" family, often called the Cabbage family, and nearly everything in this family can tolerate sub-freezing temperature. I have seen kale plantings that were completely buried in snow and sustained not a bit of damage! I plant 4-5 Kale plants about 18" apart from starts in early August, which is usually enough to enjoy a generous weekly kale harvest beginning in October! For flavor, my favorite variety is Lacinato for flavor, but Winterbor I find to be the most cold hardy, lasting into March. When Spring temperatures and daylength finally cause your kale plants to "bolt" you can harvest the immature flower buds as delicious "raab" or "rapini"!
I can't put kale on a list and not also include it's cousin cabbage. Cabbage is king for Fall and Winter production. This vegetable is at its absolute best in cold winter conditions. The dense layers of thick leaves offer incredible protection against cold temperatures, and with certain varieties, even sustained temperatures in the teens can be tolerated. They also reach the largest sizes when grown in the Fall and Winter. Many of the "semi-savoy" types like Deadon and January King are the best choices for Winter. Plant cabbages at least 24" apart, from starts, in mid-August for harvest in December or January. Planting in late July or early August will yield mature heads in October and November. Cabbage is ready for harvest when heads are very firm and do not give when squeezed.
While mature onions, shallots, and scallions will turn to mush in the cold and rain of Winter, there is one member of the "allium" family that stands tall through it all. Leeks can tolerate temperatures below 10ºF and so naturally, they are often some of the last things standing in my Winter vegetable garden. They are the perfect complement to a tray of roasted root vegetables, and a wonderful addition to hearty soups as well. My favorite varieties for Winter gardening are King Richard, and Tadorna. Leeks take a very long time to mature and must be planted in June-July in order to reach maturity heading into Winter, but when planted on time, and kept well weeded, the wait is worth it! Plant leeks 6" apart in rows 12" wide. About 6 weeks after planting, leeks can be "hilled." Mound an additional 6" of soil around each plant burying the stock up to where it branches. This will cause more of the stem to blanche to white and become more tender at harvest time!
Tender salad greens are hard to come by in Winter and arugula is one of the rare vegetables that can fill the salad void during the cold dark days of Winter. Arugula also makes a unique and delicious base for pesto, and when it becomes mature and a little spicy, a light sautee can temper the spice. Besides its versatility in the kitchen, arugula is very quick to mature and easy to grow! It grows well from both seeds and from starts. I like to plant two plantings in early September, one from seeds and one from starts. This way, after I harvest the more mature planting that grew from starts, the seeds are just coming into maturity and the arugula party isn't over! For starts, space plants 6" apart in rows 6-12" apart. For seeds, plant about 3 seeds/inch in rows 6-12" apart. My favorite varieties for Winter are Astro and Arugula.
The complete list of Winter-hardy vegetables is much longer than this, but this is at least a little glimpse of what you can grow in your own vegetable garden with just a little forethought in late Summer!
Stay cozy out there, and stay tuned, because believe it or not, it will be time to plant our sugar snap peas in just a few short weeks! Happy Growing.