In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

How to Garden All Year Long

Whether some of us like to admit it or not, we do tend to relax into the idea that winter renders gardening off limits. Now on some level, we may know there’s still something we could be doing, but did you know how much you’re missing out on?

Continuing your green-fingered magic over fall and winter, through those first winter frosts, will replenish your barren vegetable larder with lots of produce. Fruits, berries, sweet corn, beans, potatoes, summer and winter squashes, beetroots, parsnips, chard, peas, radishes, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, turnips, celery, peppers, pumpkins and watermelons will all be there for the picking.

frosty cabbage leaves
Photo by Adobe Stock/Koirill

The point is, gardening in winter and fall does require a different way of doing things. By not doing it, you are depriving yourself of an abundant harvest to take you into spring. Here are some tips to get you started on your year-long hobby.

1. Embrace the Frost

You really can have a beautiful, healthful garden with flavorful fruits and vegetables during October, November and even December. You many have thought those first fall frosts are insurmountable. Not true!

What the more adventurous among us have discovered is that frost is beneficial. When the temperature dips down to 32 degrees, insects are nowhere to be seen, leaving your winter garden to flourish unburdened by certain pests. Also, the ripe produce you’ve already grown will essentially be refrigerated out there for a far longer time before you decide to harvest.

This is a major relief for some, as many of us can be seen scurrying around the garden picking off all the tomatoes before the dreaded first frosts, only to realize a few weeks later that they all rotted on our shelves before we could get to them. So, leave the tomatoes where they belong — on the vines.

2. Take Precautions

To ensure your vegetables and fruits are in prime condition to manage to the frosts, you might want to plant your winter garden in mid to late summer. This way, your plants will be robust, healthful and resilient as the first frost approaches. Even sowing seeds after early frost can see radishes, turnips, lettuces and other greens flourish.

There will be some aesthetic damage from the frost, but this will mostly be confined to the upper foliage of your fruits and vegetable bushes, trees and leaves. Your harvest will not be affected by this superficial frosting. However, there are some tricks to the knack of producing such a luscious collection in these colder months:

• Choose to grow tomatoes that sprawl as opposed to staking the rising and tall ones
• Grow your cucumbers on the ground, not on trellises
• Go for bush peas and beans, not climbing options
• Encourage a protective ecosystem to develop by planting a closely packed garden
• Stop pulling weeds from your veggie patch to allow further shelter from the leaves
• Plant your more vulnerable crops on the south side of your house — the property should fend off damaging northern winds
• Schedule sprinklers to come on at night to aid your plants through frosty temperatures
• At the worst of temperatures, cover your plants with boxes, newspapers or straw

3. Don’t Expect a Miracle

Occasionally, we do have harsh and damaging winter weather. If the frost is relentless and protection hasn’t sufficed, then it’s OK to start harvesting everything. Green tomatoes should be wrapped in newspapers by themselves, one at a time. Stack them in boxes and keep in a cool room to reduce moisture and allow them to ripen naturally.

Radishes can be steamed and frozen to use in stews, and so can turnips. Carrots, on the other hand, should be left in the ground and covered with the thickest mulch you can get your hands on. The roots won’t freeze, and you’ll be looking at the sweetest carrots going mid-winter.

Gardening all year-round is like a new lease of life. The results are as impressive and rewarding — if not more so — than your spring and summer harvests.

Giving Your Garden a Boost with Cold-Weather Perennials

While some of us may have harvested the last of our autumn crops already, that doesn’t mean we’re done gardening for the year. Even without weeds to pull or produce to collect, there’s a lot of work that goes into readying your garden to weather the winter.

The effort you put into your garden in fall can be utilized for more than one purpose. In the midst of trimming, mulching, and weeding, consider the opportunity to add perennials to your landscape. You’ll reap benefits year-round as the plants continue to mature and minimize your garden workload, along with providing a host of benefits to your annuals and the soil they reside in.

leaf covered in frost
Photo by Pexels/Richard Fletcher

Winterizing Your Garden

Before you close up shop on your garden for the season, you should do a final pass through and remove any unwanted or dead plants and debris. Get rid of any lingering weeds, remove stalks that won’t be fruitful come spring, and trim up any loose ends. Aesthetically, this will be more pleasing through the winter, and it’ll save you a lot of time through the spring.

If you have an herb garden in pots, or even in the ground, move them inside for the winter. By keeping perennial or biennial herbs indoors, you’ll have a supply of fresh herbs to cook with all season long. Some perennial herbs may be hardy enough to survive winter outdoors.

Protect any of your existing perennials that may not survive frozen ground by (carefully) digging them up. Bulbs should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place through the winter until it’s time for them to be replanted. Understanding what USDA growing zone you live in will help you determine what plants need to brought indoors.

Add a layer of mulch or compost to the top of your garden. Not only will mulch provide nutrients throughout the winter, but the extra layer will help to insulate the ground from temperature swings throughout the winter, creating a more stable environment for any wintering plants.

If you don’t yet have perennials in your garden, consider rototilling a layer of compost into the soil prior to putting down a layer of mulch. Leaving compost in the ground all winter allows plenty of time for the mixture to break down and release nutrients into the soil, giving you a jump on next year’s prep.

flowers blooming
Photo by Pixabay/cocoparisienne

Perks of Perennials

While you’re going through the trouble of prepping your beds for a few months of frost (or snow, if you’re like me), you may as well put a little time and energy into making next spring easier on yourself.

Perennials can be the perfect way to ensure a fresh spring — and in some cases, a colorful winter, too — without all the work. Providing your garden with year-round plants not only does your schedule a favor, but it also benefits the health of your garden.

Over time, plants that return year after year will develop complex root systems that reach deep into the soil. This allows the plants to access deeper water and nutrient systems, and bring them up to higher soil levels for more plants to enjoy. Your annuals will thank you, and you won’t be spending as much time watering and fertilizing.

As the plants become more established, they’ll disappear less and less in the winter. The structure and vines they leave behind will provide protection against soil erosion, as well as shading the soil from wind. When the leaves fill in during spring and summer, the ground will be protected from dehydrating sunlight.

planting rows
Photo by Pexels/Binyamin Mellish

Perennials to Plant

For Ground Cover:

• Cypress bushes are evergreen plants that are wider than they are tall and are generally left alone by hungry deer.

• Creeping thyme is an aromatic perennial good for erosion control and strong enough to withstand being walked on.

• Ivy should be planted with caution due to its aggressive nature, but the climbing vines can also be used as ground cover.

For Easy Produce:

Herbs can yield all year round, allowing for dishes to taste garden fresh, even when all the ingredients aren’t.

Scarlet runner beans, rhubarb, and Jerusalem artichokes will weather the winter to come back and provide delicious yields in the spring.

Berry plants are hardy, compost-loving garden additions that give gardens great color (and sweetness) during harvest.

For Wintery Blooms:

• Hellebores, or Christmas Roses, provide bright blooms against dark leaves.

• Heather blooms year-round and provides nutrients for bees when other blossoms have faded.

• Crocus create a delicate silhouette as they open and close with the winter sun.

Devin roams the Pacific Northwest, looking for a place to plant his roots and commit to "serious" writing. Until then, you can find his words scattered across various web publications, proving his jack of all trades status, or you can just look at his Twitter.