Just yesterday I told my roommate that I wanted to grow pumpkins this year. She gently suggested it might be too late, but I boldly declared that there was plenty of time for them and many other kinds of fall squash. Unfortunately, a quick internet search told me she was right. I’d missed the window for these fall and early winter garden vegetables.
This set me off on a research project about what to grow when. I’d heard, of course, about “winter greens” but didn’t know what precise plants these were, when to plant them, and just how hardy they were.
I was pleased to discover that there is in fact an overwhelming number of garden plants that can outlast the winter months in many climates. What to plant when is a bit harder to figure out, because it basically depends on where you live. There are some general rules of thumb about when to plant, all variations on “x number of days before the first frost” or “when the temperature is between x and y degrees”—but again, these general rules will indicate different calendar dates, based on where you live.
Luckily, there’s a system here to make sense of these widely varying rules: the United States is divided into 11 “Hardiness Zones” based on average winter temperatures. This page explains the zones and even has a “zone finder”—just input your zip code! Once you know your zone, you can get a better sense of what will thrive in your part of the country and when.
Here’s a little introduction to some vegetables that can outlast most winter seasons (and some that in fact require them!). If you live somewhere with a mild climate, you have much more flexibility in what you can plant and when you can plant it. But if you have any kind of true winter season, the list below should help you get inspired about a few ways to keep your garden (and yourself!) looking, feeling, and eating fresh throughout the winter months.
Greens like kale, spinach, swiss chard, collards, mustard, and the like have been getting a lot of attention in recent years. They’re versatile, rich in vitamins and minerals—and, more to our point, they need a bit of frost to thrive! Their leaves are sweeter and fuller in cold temperatures. Plant them in the early to mid-fall, and you’ll be in a good position to enjoy greens through the winter months, as long as temperatures don’t regularly fall below the teens. Be sure to harvest regularly to ensure new growth—this will keep the leaves tender and flavorful.
These grow easily from seeds and develop fully for harvesting about four weeks from sowing. They come in many different varieties, some about the size of a quarter and others weighing several pounds. They can be red, white, watermelon colored, and other combinations. Add some spice to your winter dining by planting a variety of these throughout the cool months before the ground freezes.
These plants are beautiful and delicious. You can plant them until late fall, as the seeds will germinate as long as temperatures are above about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you space out your sowing every week or two, you’ll get a crop that will last you through most of the winter. Depending on what zone you’re in, you may need to harvest all heads when the temperatures dip into the teens and lower. Where I live in Zone 7, cabbages seem to thrive all winter long.
04. Brussels Sprouts
These members of the cabbage family are rich in vitamins and protein and are one of my personal favorite winter veggies. They have a fairly long growing season (80+ days to harvest), so plant them soon for a late fall or early winter harvest. Their flavor gets more intense after a little frost. If you plant these from seeds, you’ll need about 2 to 3 weeks of indoor germinating time before putting them in the ground, so keep that in mind!
05. Onions and Garlic
It’s my opinion that all the best dishes in the world involve onions and garlic. And they’re extremely easy to grow! They actually thrive during the winter months: fall planting allows the bulbs to grow larger and more flavorful as they sit underground through the cold months. If you plant them in the fall, you’ll reap the benefits in late spring or early summer!
If you’re new to vegetable gardening, winter might not seem like the optimal time to start—but if you pick a couple of these winter-hardy plants, you’ll likely start your career with success! Happy planting—and harvesting!