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

Reader Contribution by Bryan Traficante
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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.

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.

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!

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