Winter gardening

Winter is approaching and we’re getting the first frosts of the fall. Usually this means putting the garden to bed for the winter, and waiting till spring to grow anything else. But this year, we’re trying some fall gardening techniques so that we can have fresh produce at least somewhat into winter, and hopefully all winter long!

There are a few ways to try to get fresh produce throughout the winter, depending on your local climate. The goal for each method is to protect the plants from wind and provide warmer temperatures than they would experience unprotected. The method most people think of first is using a greenhouse. Greenhouses typically use glass or plastic for the walls and ceiling. These materials let short wave infrared sunlight pass through, and then they get turned into long wave infrared light, which can no longer be reflected back out of the greenhouse. As more energy gets trapped inside the greenhouse, the greenhouse heats up. Depending on how cold the outdoor temperature is, supplemental heat may also be used in the greenhouse to keep the plants healthy and happy.

Our rental house has a small greenhouse which we would love to use, but unfortunately it’s in the shade of several tall trees, so that option is out for us.

Another option is to build a cold frame. This is a much cheaper option than a greenhouse, and if you have some scrap materials laying around, you can likely build one almost for free!

Cold frames are bottomless boxes with a lid on top made of glass or plastic. They work using the same principles as a greenhouse, but on a smaller scale. On cold nights, simply close the lid, and if daytime temperatures will be too toasty, open the lid a little bit.

Cold frame by Ofer El-Hashahar, Flickr

Cold frame
by Ofer El-Hashahar, Flickr

The option we’re using this winter is hoop houses/polytunnels. To do this on the cheap, you can take PVC pipes and bend them into an arc shape above your plants at regular intervals. Then when it’s cold out, just cover the whole thing in a big plastic drop cloth. We spent about $12 for two small raised beds.

You’ll still want to stick with cold-tolerant crops, but there are a bunch of those to pick from. We’re growing snow peas, turnips, carrots, beets, swiss chard, collards, kale, lettuce and spinach. Out of the bunch, the kale and collards are especially cold-tolerant. We’ve had both of them survive in pots all winter, completely unprotected. Still, our goal is to have them not just survive, but thrive so that we can harvest fresh greens throughout the winter. With a little bit of protection, they should do much better.

What if none of these options work for you? Maybe you live in an apartment and building a hoop house or cold frame is unrealistic right now. Well, the other thing we’re going to try this winter is growing greens indoors. Personally, I hate buying whole heads of lettuce, or bags of loose lettuce, because by the time I finish it all up, it often will no longer has the crispness that it did that first day.  I much prefer to just take individual leaves as I need them, at the peak of freshness.

With growing plants indoors, you do have to consider the cost of the electricity for the lighting, but that is weighed against the value of always having such fresh greens available for you. A shop light with standard T12 fluorescent lamps will work just fine, as long as your plants are kept close (within a couple inches) to the light.

If you go to buy the fluorescent lights, you’ll have multiple options, including “cool white” light and “warm” light. The “cool white” light puts out more light in the blue spectrum, which is good for making short, stocky plants. If you start seedlings under lights in the spring, this is exactly what you want so that you have strong plants to put outside. The “warm” lights put out more light in the red spectrum, which is good for encouraging more growth. However, if there’s too much red light, you can get “leggy” plants – plants that are weak, tall, and spindly. The bottom light is, when choosing light for your greens that will stay indoors, either go with all “cool white” lights, or do one “cool white” and one “warm” in the ballast so that it will get a fuller spectrum.

This method will be more expensive than the hoop house method, especially since you have to pay for electricity. But it’s not that much, so for me and my husband it is a matter of weighing the cost of the electricity versus the nutritional value and the enjoyment we get from having such fresh lettuce.

So here’s the cost breakdown for this kind of indoor setup:

4′ shop light for T12 lights = $12

Set of 2 bulbs =$8

Timer = $6

Electricity so that the timer can keep the lights on for 16 hours per day =

Happy winter gardening!

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