Depending on the climate where you live, there could be a lot more to the winter months than simply prepping the garden for spring
In 2023, home gardens are expected to be more popular than ever. Whether you’re looking to grow one to have the freshest fruits and vegetables, to experience tastes that store-bought just can’t compete with, or because you’re concerned about sky-high prices and potential shortages, there’s no reason to wait. In fact, depending on your climate, you may be in the midst of peak growing season right now.
Start by identifying your plant hardiness zone, also called planting zone or gardening zone, according to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The map divides the country into zones based on average annual minimum winter temperature, a major factor in determining whether a plant is likely to survive the winter, in 10-degree increments from north to south. You can find your zone at PlantHardiness.ars.usda.gov.
The USDA plant zone hardiness map. (planthardiness.ars.usda.gov)
Florida has a growing season that’s the opposite of most of the country, meaning December is the month to plant arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, sugarcane, celery, mustard, frost-tolerant peas, and spinach plants even in the northern parts of the state, according to the University of Florida. You can plant carrots, bunching onions, radish, and turnip seeds, and let them enjoy the cooler temperatures.
In Central Florida, add pineapples and potatoes to the list. And if you go further south, there’s still time to plant beans, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and watermelon seeds, to name just a few.
The rest of the southern states can grow frost-tolerant vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chives, kale, leaks, peas, radishes, Swiss chard, and spinach. This list applies to everyone who lives in Zones 8 to 11.
Before you plant, check the back of seed packets or the tag on a nursery plant to make sure the plant is appropriate for your zone.
Cold frames have been a secret of commercial gardeners for generations. (Paul Maguire/Shutterstock)
Thinking Outside the Garden Bed
If you live in a colder zone, don’t despair! This doesn’t mean that there aren’t winter harvests north of Zone 8; these gardeners just get a little more creative. (And even if you’re in Zones 8 to 11, read on—you may find these northern winter methods the secret to hearty, robust plants in your region’s hot, hot, hot summer months.)
One of the easiest winter garden solutions is potted plants. Just as northern gardeners bring their backyard tropicals inside for the winter, the same can be done with fruits and vegetables. Plants that grow well in containers include strawberries, tomatoes, radishes, peppers, carrots, potatoes, beans, lettuce, spinach, squash (including zucchini), and even cucumbers (be ready with something for them to grow on). These can all be grown in protected locations while the temperatures are high enough, or indoors where they’ll need a sunny space (or grow lights, which we’ll get to shortly), or in a heated greenhouse.
Grow lights have come a long way since the advent of LED.(EvgeniusD/Shutterstock)
Topping many gardeners’ “Ultimate Wish List” is a heated greenhouse. Depending on your produce needs and budget, now might be the perfect time to get one. Two less expensive options are an unheated greenhouse—available in a wide variety of sizes—or a cold frame. If you’re in Zone 8 or above, you can grow citrus, corn, beans, and peppers in the middle of winter in a greenhouse that is only heated by the sun.
Cold-tolerant veggies such as carrots, chard, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, peas, onions, radishes, and turnips will do well in an unheated greenhouse down to Zone 4, which is most of the country except for the most northern tip of Maine and a few other frigid areas. Order a greenhouse insulation blanket to cover the greenhouse during the coldest temps.
Cold frames—or enclosed boxes or structures with a transparent “roof” built in contact with the ground—have been a secret of commercial gardeners for generations. You can buy one pre-made, purchase a kit, or build your own out of spare wood and an old window or shower door.
If you take the DIY route, make sure the structure slopes slightly north to south to take advantage of the winter sun, and that the base is not in direct contact with the ground (old bricks set under the frame work well here)—unless, of course, the wood is ground-contact rated. Broccoli, mustard, radishes, kale, chard, and cabbage do well in cold frames; some farmers swear that they actually get their most flavorful green onions and beets during the cold months.
No Yard? No Problem
Apartment dwellers and those who live in Zone 3 or colder without a heated greenhouse can grow robust plants 100 percent indoors. All you need is a sunny window, preferably with a southern exposure, to grow a wide variety of herbs as well as salad greens, mushrooms, peppers, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers.
Even if you’ve got a garden going outdoors, you don’t want to waste this space. Try growing some microgreens and sprouts; if the window is big enough, try a dwarf citrus tree.
No window? Grow lights have come a long way since the advent of LED. Full-spectrum bulbs are a popular choice due to their efficiency and lower cost compared to traditional bulbs. You can use them with traditional soil planters or go hydroponic (growing plants in water).
Hydroponic methods require an investment in equipment, but devotees swear that they get faster growth and heavier yields. Using grow lights with traditional seed-starting peat or soil planters is also a great way to start plants early for a more bodacious spring and summer garden.
Take advantage of a sunny window to grow herbs, microgreens, or even a dwarf citrus tree.(Levranii/Shutterstock)
Cold Is Cool
Not getting all hot and sweaty is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of a winter garden.
Let’s face it, the shorter days of winter can become depressing. Working in a winter garden or a “green area” indoors exposes the gardener to mycobacterium vaccae bacteria-infused soil, which triggers the release of happy serotonin.
Winter gardening is easier because weeds grow less vigorously in cool temperatures. That means fewer weeds to compete with your plants for nutrients and less for you to have to pull. Similarly, bug infestations are less prevalent in winter months, too.
Winter plants stop the soil from eroding and help keep weeds down. Choosing the right plants to add nitrogen to the soil—for example, beans—and tilling them back into the soil after they’ve grown does double duty as “green manure” for your next crop.
Sandy Lindsey is an award-winning writer who covers home, gardening, DIY projects, pets, and boating. She has two books with McGraw-Hill.