Gardening is often considered to be a spring going into summer activity. But that’s not the whole picture, especially when you want to grow vegetables. Many vegetables that we plant in the spring can also be planted in late summer and the fall, to be harvested before the end of the year or even into the spring months of the following year.
These vegetables are called a variety of names including “cold-weather” or “cool-season” vegetables, and there quite a few of them.
When the non-leafy ones like carrots, parsnips, beets and cauliflower are mixed together and roasted with onions, they make a delicious side dish or main meal. This short video shows you how easy it is:
Now for some information on the basics of growing cool-season vegetables, including the best ones to grow. First it may help to know the difference between warm-season and cool-season vegetables.
Warm Season vs. Cool Season
Warm-season vegetables like the soil and the air to be warmer. They only have one growing season: they need to be planted in the spring after the last frost, although they can be started indoors before that to extend the growing season.
Some examples of warm-season vegetables are tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, sweet potato, eggplant, beans, peppers and melons.
Cool-season vegetables, on the other hand, don’t do well with heat, although they may love the sun. That sounds contradictory, but it isn’t really. Think of a sunny winter day that, in spite of the sun, is quite cold. That’s the kind of weather most cold weather vegetables like. If the weather gets too warm, they will probably bolt and go to seed. You can prevent this by buying bold-resistant seeds if they are available for a particular variety.
Some cool-season vegetables need to be protected from frost, but others that are more hardy greatly improve their flavor after a gentle freeze.
Cool-season vegetables generally have two possible growing seasons: in the spring and in the fall.
Growing Winter Vegetables
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of growing vegetables in winter. First of all, you’ll need to know the average date of the first fall or winter frost in your area. If you live in the United States, you can locate your plant hardiness zone with this USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
Within the cool-season category, there is a further distinction that’s important for a successful harvest. Some winter vegetables called cold-hardy can take more frost than others that are called semi-hardy. This affects when they are planted.
Semi-Hardy Winter Vegetables
Cool-season vegetables that are not cold-hardy will need to be planted 4 to 12 weeks before the first frost depending on the plant variety, so they can be harvested before the first frost. Follow the instructions on the seed package or from your local nursery.
Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables
On the other hand, cold-hardy vegetables can tolerate very cold weather and, as mentioned earlier, their flavor will improve after a light frost or two. So planting early is not necessary and probably not recommended. And they do not need to be harvested before the first frost. They can be kept in the ground until you’re ready to harvest.
However once temperatures dip below around 25 F, most vegetable plants will need some form of protection from frost to survive. There are many ways to protect plants from frost such as cold frames, cloches and fabric row covers.
Because of the cold temperature and shorter days (less light), these plants will grow very slowly or even go dormant during the winter but they will start growing again as the temperatures rise before being harvested in early spring.
Which Vegetables to Grow
There’s a long list of semi-hardy and cold-hardy vegetables. Here are some we recommend.
These vegetables can tolerate a light frost:
- Lettuce (some varieties)
- Bok Choy
These vegetables can tolerate a harder frost and even snow:
- Brussels sprouts
- Swiss chard
Growing vegetables in winter is possible in most climates; just make sure you understand the weather in your region and when the first frost starts, so you’ll know when to start planting a particular vegetable. You’ll be rewarded with an abundance of fresh, healthy winter vegetables in the fall and again in the early spring.
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