In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden


Crops in the Cold: Your Guide to Winter Gardening in the South

We’re officially in the thick of the fall season, with the smell of cinnamon, decaying leaves, and wood smoke perfuming the air. Next thing you know, winter will come sweeping in, blanketing the ground with cold, white snow.

In the South, though, these changes in temperature and scenery aren’t as extreme. Though the temperatures will drop, southern states usually get only a light dusting of snow, if any (we see you Florida). This kind of weather makes winter gardening perfect in the region.

woman planting in raised bed garden
Photo by epixproductions on AdobeStock

The Winter Gardening Tools You’ll Need & Ways To Keep Plants Thriving

Because the winter weather is trickier than other seasons, it's a good idea to use some helpful tools and strategies for your winter garden. Having these will help your crops grow despite a drop in temperature.

1. Raised Beds & Watering

Winter weather and surprise temperature drop can make it very challenging for some plants in the ground to survive. Rain and melted snow are known to saturate the soil, which can cause root rot, and that trapped water can eventually freeze. To prevent roots from potentially sitting in that cold wet soil, grow your winter crops in raised garden beds. They drain water better than ground soil. 

Since raised beds drain water well, you also have another cold-weather advantage. If using an all-season garden watering system like the Garden Grid™, you can leave it running at a slow rate during a sudden cold spell. The soil, with a light water stream on it, will keep warmer than the air. Your plant's roots will then stay warmer and they won't be overly soggy because of your raised bed's watering draining ability 

2. Spacing 

When planting in a garden bed, you have a finite amount of space but fortunately, no need for walking rows between plants. But, that doesn’t mean you can simply put crops into the soil however you please. Proper plant spacing is essential to root health and crop production. Here's a guide on plant spacing

3. Cloches for Seedlings 

In the southern most parts of the U.S., it usually doesn’t get so insufferably cold that you’d need a traditional greenhouse to grow plants during winter. Still, the temperature can and does drop sharply at night, which means you need to protect your crops from frost. Cloches are perfect for providing this protection. They're basically bell-shaped jars, which act as miniature, portable greenhouses, to cover plants and provide a layer of protection against the elements. These are great, especially for younger plants and seedlings. 

4. Row Cover / Simple Greenhouse

The first frost of winter can be hard to predict, especially in southern states. If the plants in your winter garden aren’t prepared, you’ll wake up with them shriveled and turned to mush. Row covers are the gardening apparatus that will shield your winter crops from the effects of harsh winds and cold temperatures, by making a more stable micro-climate inside of them.

Row covers and simple greenhouses can be made from materials like sheets of plastic and basic frameworks. Here's a video on making one, from Garden Grid™ watering system inventor, Tom. The covering will help mitigate temperature swings and adequately protected from cold, blowing wind.

Apart from these winter essentials, prepare your usual gardening tools like trowels, gloves, a hose, mulch, and others.

head of cauliflower on wooden background
Photo by Jennifer Schmidt on Unsplash

Choosing the Right Winter Garden Plants

So you’ve got the proper tools and strategies for winter gardening. All you need are plants. Keep in mind that you cannot simply plant any crop you want. Some vegetables, flowers, and other crops just won’t grow in cold weather. Despite barely having snow, days and nights in the south still be too cold for many plants.

With that in mind, the following are cold-hardy and frost-tolerant plants for a lush and vibrant winter garden:

Garlic and Onion

Garlic and onion (bulb types) are perfect ingredients for hearty fall and winter comfort food. Not only do they add exciting flavors to soups and other dishes, but they also prefer cold weather to grow in. Typically slow to harvest, if you plant them in your garden this fall/winter, don’t expect to harvest them until spring.

What makes garlic and onion great winter garden crops is that they both have long growing seasons and require little maintenance. Over winter, these crops will basically look after themselves until you can harvest them.

Spinach and Kale

Spinach is hailed as a great vegetable to grow during cold weather because it can survive drops in temperature better than most leafy greens. Its fellow leafy green, kale, also has no trouble thriving in the cold and makes for a great neighbor to spinach. In fact, the cold weather only sweetens kale’s flavor. As long as you protect them from hard freezes with a row cover or cloche, you’ll be able to enjoy eating these salad greens even in wintry weather.

Brussels Sprouts and Cabbages

Cabbages are typical cool-season plants that, with enough planning, will produce well into winter. Just make sure not to leave the young leaves exposed to frost so they won’t wither and die. The cabbage’s cousin, Brussels sprouts, can also withstand frost over short periods. To ensure that they don’t wither and die during a hard-frost, though, cover them with the methods explained above.

Why Grow a Winter Garden?

It's fun and can be good for your health.

The gray skies, short days, and colder temperatures can affect your mood. One thing that can lift spirits is greenery. Seeing color amidst the winter landscape is a beautiful sight. Plus, the physical act of gardening forces you to go out in nature, meaning you’re not cooped up inside the house for months on end. What’s more, this 2010 study suggests that gardening leads to a decrease in cortisol, or the stress hormone, and restoration of a positive mood. 

Apart from its psychological benefits, a winter garden can serve as your source of vegetables in the winter. Not only will you have plants to tend to and keep busy with, but you’ll also have fresh, homegrown food to eat in the cold months.

The upcoming colder temperatures and shorter days may seem off-putting to gardening, but with the right plants, the right tools, and an attentive eye you can keep your thumbs green year-round!

6 Perennials to Plant Now

Flowers, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and trees not only spice up your home’s landscape, but they also provide an ecological balance for Mother Earth. Birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife depend on the bounties nature provides. Perennial flowers and grasses beautify your yard while providing food and habitat for local wildlife.

patch of zoysia grass
Photo by David-Pierre Mangiapan via Wikimedia Commons

Grasses

Ornamental and turfgrasses are a given for yards and landscapes. Grass is a perennial plant since it returns every year. Depending on where you live, the type of grass in your lawn is a warm-season or cool-season variety. Warm-season grasses grow best when the average daily temperature is 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They include Zoysia, St. Augustine, Bahia, and Bermudagrass. Cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, fescues, and perennial ryegrass, thrive in temperatures of 65 to 75. Late summer or early fall is the best time to overseed a lawn with cool-season grasses because they need warm soil to germinate. Planting grass in the fall helps to establish the roots before winter. 

pink achillea
Photo by KENPEI via Wikimedia Commons

Cold-Hardy Perennials

If you live in a USDA plant hardiness zone where the temperature drops below freezing, check out these cold-hardy perennial plants.

Achillea: This variety includes milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, yarrow and staunchweed.  Hardy for USDA zones 3 to 9, these drought-tolerant plants grow 2 to 3 feet high. They enjoy full sunlight, bloom in late spring, and attract birds and butterflies.

Clematis: Growing in full sunlight or filtered shade, clematis prefers well-draining, slightly alkaline soil. Suitable for USDA zones 5 to 9. Clematis’ showy flowers bloom in various colors throughout the summer.  This perennial vine grows and spreads, so you’ll want to have a lot of space for it. 

Columbine: Also called Aquilegia and hardy for USDA zones 3 to 8, this plant grows in various cultivars from 1½ to 3 feet high. It flowers in April and May with violet, blue, pink, red, and white blooms that attract wildlife.

Creeping phlox:  Spreading like a carpet, this low-growing perennial reaches about 6 inches tall.  It expands nicely in flower borders, on slopes, and in rocky areas. Hardy to zone 3, Creeping Phlox blooms in April and May. 

Echinacea:  Better known as coneflowers, you’ll want to plant this beautiful perennial for its looks and its seed. Birds love it!  Hardy to zones 3 to 8, coneflowers have daisy-like petals with button heads and grow to about 3 feet tall. Flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. 

Salvia: Also known as garden sage, salvia is a perennial hardy to USDA zones 4 to 8. The herbaceous plant is drought-tolerant, prefers full sunlight, and blooms with blue flowers in June. Growing 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 feet tall, this perennial shrub is a member of the mint family and attracts bees and butterflies.   

lavender new england asters
Photo by Kapa65

Brightly Colored Perennials

Looking for more color in your landscape?  Consider these plants:

New England aster: Hot-pink star-shaped petals. Late-summer and autumn blooms.  USDA zones 3-8.

Pink elf: Semi-evergreen for mild climate, nice for a woodland setting. USDA zones 6-9.

Gold gloriosa daisy: Showy perennial with bright golden petal and brown heads.  Perfect for mixed borders. This flower thrives in full to partial sun in zones 4 to 10.

With so many cold-hardy shrubs available, you might want to add some hydrangeas, conifers, spirea, and weigela to your landscape. In warmer climates, pink muhly is an ornamental grass that shines with purple hues and brings a special glow to your backyard.  Whatever plants you choose, be sure to give their roots enough room to spread, and apply the proper type of fertilizer to ensure they make it through the winter.

Whether you live in a cool or warm climate, it’s time to get busy! Fall is the time for planting.

Testing Apples For Ripeness + A Super Helpful Calendar

test apples for ripeness

One of my most asked questions is “How do I know when apples/plums/ pears are ripe?” I remember wondering that too. The realization that harvesting required as much knowledge as growing, dawned the day I harvested a whole tree of apples in a rush of excitement because they were red. What a let-down when I bit into one … sour … duh! They weren’t ripe yet.

Make A Harvest Calendar

a useful harvest calendar

Step one, my friends, is to have your eye on a ready date. This is my southern hemisphere apple harvest chart.

A harvest calendar is super useful. It has you ready for when the apples are. In a perfect world you make this up at the planning stage. Choosing varieties that suit your place and your needs and  spread the harvest through the year. This disperses your workload, takes the pressure off storage and brings a beautiful steady supply to your kitchen table.

mayflower apple harvest

Put romantic notions of harvesting basket loads of fruit aside — processing a tree load of fruit is a good sized mission!

Here’s How

Go to the sunny side of the tree (bathed in sunlight = first ones ready) and choose a ripe looking apple. Cup it in your hand and lift it up or sideways. If it’s perfectly ready it’ll separate easily from the tree with a lift —no pulling required! Pulling can take off next years spurs and if you have to yank the apple off — it’s not ready to leave home.

tesing apple for ripeness

Now slice your tester apple in half and check the pips out – brown pips = apples are ready. If the flesh turns brown – they’re not ready either. Finally sink your teeth into it … mmhmm … surely the best indicator of all.

Things Not To Do

  • Pull your fruit off (and next years fruit spurs too)
  • Toss your fruit into the basket (bruises — ouch!)
  • Wait till your apples drop — most varieties will be overcooked by this time. Aim to harvest them while they are crisp and juicy from the tree.
  • Harvest all your fruit just because one is ready. The joy of being a home gardener is that we can harvest as the fruit is ready. The ones in the sunlight and around the edges will be ready first. Those in the shade following along after.

Get Sorted

harvesting and sorting apples

Take a moment to sort your fruits. The bird pecked, black spotted, stalk-less and damaged into one crate – these will need to be eaten first or preserved. The perfect ones are for storage.

Easy Greens and Brassicas For a Daily Winter Harvest

rsz_daily_winter_harvest_at_ediblebackyard

Achieving a daily winter harvest takes a little more fore thought than a summer one. That's because we need to bust a move and get our crops in before it cools down - the hour is now! Here's my easy plan.

The Staples

rsz_spring_kale

These four crops are the backbone of my winter kitchen and our winter wellness. Though they are humble and ordinary, don't under estimate them! These are the winter crops to go for if you don't have much room or time. Plant them this month so you can pick them all winter and spring long.

  1. Parsley. Is there a more nourishing, low maintenance, go-with-everything, herb? I have at least 6 plants on the go at any one time. For long lived plants, it's better to pick a little from each rather than a lot from one.
  2. Silverbeet, Chard or Kale. Beneficent leafy greens! Just like our friend parsley – easy peasy, a tonne of nutrition and they fit into every wintry meal. Plant them into lovely soil and mulch well. Perk them up with a monthly liquid feed and keep picking the outside leaves to keep new fresh ones coming on.
  3. Celery. I know not all of you agree with me about celery, but doesn't every stock, soup or wintry slow cook need some?! The trick to juicy stems is to plant into good compost and mulch well. I make a pile of compost in summer and plant my celery into it in Autumn. Mulch is key, as is good soil moisture. Celery loves seaweed, so pour over some liquid feed every week or so or lay some beneath the mulch. Twist and pull off the outside stalks regularly to keep new ones coming on.
  4. Carrots. Direct sow them now so that by time the soil is cold they’re fully grown.

Health-Giving Brassicas

rsz_august_broccoli_and_rocket_and_greens_at_ediblebackyard

Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauli, bok choy) are a super food! Fresh picked, they are full of vital nutrients to help us stave off colds and flu. I plant a few each month from August through November so that we can eat them daily winter/ spring long. Plant a mixture of slow to mature with some faster ones to stagger your harvest and keep dinner interesting.

For Example

rsz_main_head_de_cico_broccoli_edible_backyard

Let's make a virtual bed to show you what I mean.

Plant out two cauliflower, three broccoli, two cabbages, 1 raab and six bok choy for a very useful staggered harvest in about 1.3 x 3m worth of bed. Plant or sow a variety of small saladings (eg: land cress, corn salad, miners lettuce, rocket, coriander, winter lettuce) + beetroot, around the edge of the bed to make the most of the space.

The bok choy will be ready first. After they are harvested, plant more saladings. Next up you'll start harvesting raab, followed by heading broccoli. Once the main head is cut from the broccoli it'll keep providing good sized shoots for months on end. (Eat the stalk as well - broccoli is such great bang for your buck!) Next comes cabbage + broccoli shoots, followed by the cauliflower + still more broccoli shoots!

Any gaps in harvest will be filled by your handy dandy leafy greens, parsley, root crops and celery.

rsz_flowringbrocoli

If you plant a second mixed brassica bed a month later, you'll be moving into that one as the first bed starts to flower. Let it go, the bees and beneficial insects adore these nectar rich flowers.

A Guide to Mulching

Homeowners know a beautiful yard doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of tender care — and sweat — to grow a thick, green lawn surrounded by brightly colored flowerbeds. Mother Nature is ready to lend a hand in preserving lawns and gardens, especially with mulch from cut grass, dead leaves, and fallen trees.

If you can't compost it yourself, there are a few things to consider when selecting mulch from garden stores: cost, durability, texture, color, nutrients, and most importantly, origin. Knowing where the wood came from and how it was cultivated helps to determine if it is free of pests and disease.

grass clippings in hand

Grass Mulch

Natural mulch is the best way to go, especially when cutting the lawn. When mowing the lawn, bagging clippings not inconvenient, but depriving your lawn of a natural source of nutrients.  According to Wikilawn, the grass clippings from mowing provide nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. Be sure that whatever lawn mower you buy comes with a mulching blade.

When mulching clippings, some worry about thatch, a carpet-like layer of vegetation that builds up between the soil and actively-growing grass blades. Leaving the grass clippings after mowing does NOT increase the likelihood that your lawn will develop thatch. If the thatch is already present, that’s a different issue.

There are times when bagging the grass clippings is a better idea. Remove them if the lawn is full of diseases like rust, dollar spot, or leaf spot. 

Grass clippings and dead leaves are great for mulching around shrubs, vegetables, flowers, and trees. They help the soil stay moist and warm, but there are some rules to keep in mind. Use 1 or 2 inches of dry clippings; wet grass will clump together and prevent oxygen and moisture from getting to the soil. You also don't want to apply grass clippings if the lawn was recently treated with herbicides for weeds, dandelions, and crabgrass.

Just like synthetic fertilizers, mulched grass clippings and foliage provide nitrogen and potassium, and the best part is … it won’t cost you a thing.

Wood Mulch

The next time you check out your local garden store, consider these types of mulch for flower and shrubbery beds.

  • Pine bark from evergreen trees has a deep brown color.
  • Cypress is cut from wood and bark. It's used in flooring, furniture, lumber, fencing, and other woodworking projects. Mulch is cut from cypress tree scraps.
  • Eucalyptus mulch from Florida and South Carolina. The trees are grown specifically for the scented mulch they produce.
  • Melaleuca mulch comes from invasive tree species. The product is treated so that unwanted seeds die and won’t germinate in a garden or flowerbed. 
  • Scrap lumber from recycled pallets, wood framing, and other projects are turned into mulch when the sources are too small for anything else. 
  • Fallen leaves that decompose quickly make a great mulch since it's a source of nutrients. Pine straw which comes from fir trees also works. The pine needles “knit” together to create a covering. The mulch is often given away by utility companies after trees are cut back from power lines.

mulch

Wood Chips

Bags of chips and shreds are typically available at garden stores, nurseries. The mixes stem from various softwood and hardwood species and contain high carbon and nitrogen. 

Wood chips can lose their color over time, fading from brown to gray. Do not try to enhance the color by adding more mulch each season. Too many wood chips can suffocate shallow roots. and cankers may develop around the trunks and roots of shrubs and trees.  It is best to replace mulch in the landscape every two or three years.        

Stone Mulch

Gravel, stones, volcanic rock or tiny pebbles may be used as mulch for small landscapes but doing so prevents the soil from absorbing nutrients or natural organic compounds. When using stony mulch, first lay a woven ground cloth over the dirt to keep the small grit and gravel from soaking into sandy soils. A good thing about this kind of mulch is that it's durable. It can withstand inclement weather and won’t get tossed about by high winds. But you’ll want to rake it to remove any debris.  Mineral mulches are suitable for walkways, shrub beds, and rock gardens.

When Mulching …

  • Provide 1-3 inches in a layer of wood chips around trees, plants, and shrubs. A cubic yard of mulch should spread over 324 square feet if you are only laying a 1-inch cover. 
  • Mulched areas around trees should be 8 feet around.
  • Clean up the old chips by raking them out of the bed. Matted, rotting wood chips can attract pests, molds, and disease. They usually don’t smell very good, either! 

The Ideal Mulch

The ideal mulch is cost-effective, easy to apply and remove, stays in place, and provides organic nutrients to the soil. Mulch that protects against insects, diseases, and noxious weeds is a huge plus!

A Pest Free Veggie Patch

rsz_mid_summer_garden

Got ya there! Nope, won’t ever happen. As long as we garden (i.e. manipulate the environment)—even in a kind and gentle way—we'll have pests. For a peaceful life it helps if you adjust your mind to this fact. We can however, minimize pest numbers. Here's my tried and true pest prevention plan.

Beneficial Insect Power

rsz_hoverfly

Beneficial insects are your go to smart solution.  There’s an army of insects on your side - parasitic wasps, hoverflies, ladybirds, praying mantis, spiders, dragonflies, assassin bugs, lacewings, various beetles, frogs and earwigs. They’ll manage pests, pollination and recycling of debris in return for a spray free home and a years’ supply of food. Fill your garden with a year round supply of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers, provide a simple source of water, an undisturbed 'wild area' for habitat and the beneficial insects will move in.

Be Strong

rsz_buckwheat_meadowseet_yarrow_homemade_mulch

What a difference to our pest levels when we garden in a steady, robust, natural way.

  • Look after your garden well by watering and feeding properly. Artificial fertilizer, too much manure and overwatering creates sweet, soft, sappy growths that sucking pests adore.
  • Meet all the needs of your plants. Plant with the seasons—heat lovers when its hot and those that prefer cool when its cool. Don't fertilize legumes and do fertilize heavy feeders. Happy plants (like happy people), have a heap less problems.
  • Keep your soil covered with mulch or crops.
  • Grow resistant varieties. Talk to gardeners in your area. Experiment with varieties until you find ones that the pests don't bother.
  • Save seeds of crops that perform well at your place.

Be Cunning

rsz_autumn_tomatoes

Pests hunt by either smell or shape, so get cunning with a bit of disguise, camouflage and distraction!

  • Disguise vulnerable plants by growing among different shapes and smells. Eg: carrots with spring onions and calendula or tomatoes with nasturtium, marigolds and parsley.
  • Distract pests away from your veggies with plants they prefer close by. This is called catch cropping. Eg: Seduce shield bugs away from beans with mustard or cabbage whites with nasturtium.
  • Regular seaweed or fish foliar sprays not only boost your plants, but disguise scent.

Spray Free Solutions

rsz_insect_mesh

Halt pests at the earliest point. A couple is easy, an epidemic is not. A daily walk about is one of my top pest strategies.

  • Use your fingers. Pests like snails, aphids and shield bugs are easily managed by picking off and squashing.
  • Cover vulnerable crops with fine insect mesh. I use this to prevent psyllids in potatoes, cabbage whites in brassicas and carrot fly in carrots.
  • Make traps. Yogurt traps for slaters, beer traps for snails and yellow sticky traps for whitefly.

Unsafe Spray

  • Be careful of natural sprays which knock everything both good and bad - dead. Beware Pyrethrum, Rhubarb, Garlic and Derris Dust (which is by the way a neurotoxin).
  • Don't use chemical sprays. Even in the driveway. Spray drifts, going far further than you think. I was pretty bummed last week judging school gardens to see herbicide damage on vegetables in children's gardens.

Safe Spray

rsz_ladybug_on_buckwheat

When all else fails and a pest is getting the upper hand I reach for one of two sprays—Neem for all sucking/ chewing insects, or a spray with the active ingredient Bacillus Thuringiensis for caterpillars. Neither of these are contact killers. They must be ingested to work, making them safe as houses for bees and beneficial insects.

Culinary Lavender Delights the Senses

Lavender fields are in full bloom this time of the year. For the past two years I have attended the Red Chair Lavender Festival here in Idaho. When entering the farm, you see hues of purple flowers with bees and butterflies.

Red Chair Lavender Farm Entrance
Photo by Annika Hardin

Swallow Tail On Lavender
Photo by Annika Hardin

The lavender fields have hidden art collected from the surrounding foothills. There are stations of lavender lemonade to drink for hydrating in the heat and a garden area with a pond to rest.

This year when I will attend and focus on cutting or purchasing lavender for culinary use. There are so many ways you can delight the palate with a small amount of lavender infused into a recipe. Download three culinary lavender flower recipes and make one for your next summer barbecue.

Lavender Field
Photo by Annika Hardin

Lavandula x angustifolia is the best species for culinary purposes. The following species are full sun perennials that grow in zones 5-11 and have heights between 12 and 36 inches. The plants below can be purchased online at Valley Mountain Growers.

  • English Lavender: Medium Purple, 24 to inches
  • Hidcote Lavender: Dark Purple, 18 inches
  • Jean Davis Lavender: Pale Pink, 18 inches
  • Lavender Vera: Purple, 18 inches
  • Munstead Lavender: Medium Purple, 18 inches
  • Royal Purple Lavender: Dark Purple, 24 inches
  • Sachet Lavender: Purple, 18-24 inches
  • Sarah Lavender: Purple, 12 inches

Spring is the ideal time to plant cuttings. Fall planting is best in harsh climates.

Lavender requires well-drained soils. Sandy, or gravel soils are preferable. Mix bone meal with soil as this is a source of phosphorus and protein.

When planting space plants 30 inches apart.

Trim off flower buds the 1st and 2nd years to speed up establishment of plants. 

If you would like to grow lavender plants from seeds Botanical Interests has Lavender Vera and Hidcote varieties. Growing instructions are as follows:

Sow outside 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date or as soon as soil can be worked, or late fall in any climate.

Start inside, which is recommended, 10 to 12 weeks before your average last frost date. Transplant seedlings after average last frost.

Days to Emerge: 30–90 days

Seed Depth: Surface to 1/8 inches

Seed Spacing: A group of 3 seeds every 10 inches

Thinning: When 1 inch tall, thin to 1 every 10 inches







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