By: Liz Baessler
Gardens in USDA zone 6 usually experience winters that are hard, but not so hard that plants can’t survive with some protection. While winter gardening in zone 6 won’t yield lots of edible produce, it’s possible to harvest cold weather crops well into the winter and to keep many other crops alive until the spring thaw. Keep reading to learn more about how to grow winter vegetables, in particular how to treat winter vegetables for zone 6.
When should you be planting winter vegetables? Many cool weather crops can be planted in late summer and harvested well into the winter in zone 6. When planting winter vegetables in late summer, sow the seeds of semi-hardy plants 10 weeks before the average first frost date and hardy plants 8 weeks before.
If you start these seeds indoors, you’ll protect your plants from both the hot summer sun and capitalize on space in your garden. Once the seedlings are about 6 inches (15 cm.) tall, transplant them outdoors. If you’re still experiencing hot summer days, hang a sheet over the plants’ south-facing side to protect them from the afternoon sun.
It’s possible to protect cool weather crops from the cold when winter gardening in zone 6. A simple row cover works wonders at keeping plants warm. You can go a step further by constructing a hoop house out of PVC pipe and plastic sheeting.
You can make a simple cold frame by building walls out of wood or straw bales and covering the top with glass or plastic.
Sometimes, mulching heavily or wrapping plants in burlap is enough to keep them insulated against the cold. If you do build a structure that’s tight against the air, make sure to open it up on sunny days to keep the plants from roasting.
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Perennial vegetables are the gift that keeps on giving, season after season and year after year. When planning your vegetable garden for 2021, consider making space for perennial plants: vegetables, perennial herbs, flowers, and of course, fruit and nut crops.
Here’s why a gardener will want to plant more perennial vegetables.
When you first learn about winter sowing it seems a bit mysterious. How can seeds germinate out in the cold—don’t they need warmth and moisture to sprout?
Yes they do. But, some seeds also need a cold chill in preparation for germination and that’s where this method can help.
We call it ‘winter sowing’ but instead of sowing the seeds directly outdoors we’re sowing in clear, closed but ventilated containers like milk jugs that are placed outdoors to experience winter conditions. The seeds remain dormant while chilling, and, as spring approaches, light and heat increase and germination is triggered.
Winter Sowing is suitable for hardiness zones 4 to 8
Look up your zone here: United States | Canada
Which seeds work best?
Winter sowing is best for any cold hardy seeds that require ‘stratification’—that cold chill I mentioned that prepares some seeds for germination. By using containers, we’re basically mimicking what nature does but giving the seeds better odds by sheltering them from extreme conditions and critters that might eat them.
The group of seeds that need a cold boost includes favorites like delphinium, milkweed, lupine, and columbine in addition to cold climate native plants and some trees, shrubs, and vines. These are temperate (not tropical) plants. I’ve included an extensive list of seeds to try (below).
Can I winter sow seeds that are not cold hardy?
Yes. This method can work for any seeds. The difference is, cold-tolerant seeds are started first in the coldest months of winter to provide the necessary chilling period.
Any tender or warmth-loving seeds are started later in spring when there is little risk of night-time temperatures dipping too low. At this point the milk jug is really just acting as a mini greenhouse.
I’ll walk you through the basic steps and supplies needed.
If you just want the list of suggested seeds to try, you can jump to it here: seeds to winter sow.
Early spring crops I plant inside
My target date for startng things outsde is St. Patrick’s Day
I start doing more direct seeding and transplanting cool weather crops in April. I also start seeding my squashes and melons.
I do like to push my parameters and get tomatoes and peppers outside as early as possible. I play planting by ear based on the weather.
Going into my frost-free season I am transplanting and direct seeding my warm-weather crops.
Going into summer I will continue to fill in the gaps. I typically will plant beans and squashes every two weeks. In May I start planting summer lettuce varieties. I plant Brussel Sprouts in early June as I want them to mature n the fall.
What coverings/protections work best for you in your winter garden?
What other winter growing techniques work best for you to get the biggest, healthiest harvests?
What are your best tips for getting the timing right when planning and planting a winter garden?
Lettuce is a widely adapted winter vegetable in most zone 7, 8, and 9 climates. It grows and can be harvested all winter.
You can garden through the winter in almost any climate. Even northern gardeners can enjoy harvests of root crops and greens in the winter if they are willing to put in the effort to protect plants with cloches, cold frames, or hoop houses. However, gardeners in mild winter areas, such as coastal California, Oregon and Washington Arizona Texas and Florida, can really bask in fall and winter's glory. While gardeners in cool summer areas, such as coastal Northern California, Oregon and Washington, look to extend and protect fall planted veggies through the damp, cool weather of winter, gardeners in southern Arizona, the Gulf Coast, Texas, and Florida are loving the cool temperatures to sow and grow a variety of vegetables that don't survive the heat of summer. In some areas, such as southern Florida and Texas, they are even growing warm season crops of tomatoes in winter, but that's a topic for another article.
In this article, I'd like to focus on the crops and techniques you can use to grow a winter garden in hardiness zones 7, 8, and 9. If you're gardening in a colder climate, check out these stories I wrote on a Fall Greens Garden and Season Extenders to enjoy fresh produce in your garden this winter. In the mild winter areas, temperatures rarely get much below freezing for very long in winter, although sometimes temperatures can dip into the teens. There's still time to plant many cool weather loving crops in most of these regions.
Why Plant a Winter Garden?
There are many reasons to plant a winter garden in these areas. Often, it's the only time to really be able to get cool season crops such as broccoli, spinach, lettuce, and carrots to grow properly. Plus, there's less work involved.
October is a great time to plant in these mild areas because the heat of summer has passed, but the soil is still warm. The days are shorter, the sun's intensity less, and there are fewer insects and diseases around to attack your plants. This allows cool weather seedlings and transplants the luxury of growing slow and strong to maturity. For the gardener, there's less weeding, watering and care involved and more comfortable weather to work in. Weeds will germinate, but they will not grow strongly during the short days and are easy to remove. Moisture holds in the soil longer in fall so the garden requires less watering. There's time to harvest plants as needed, knowing they will hold in the garden longer than if growing under high heat conditions.
Preparing the Winter Garden
Start your winter garden by turning the soil, removing perennial weeds and grasses, and amending it with compost. While winter rains are welcome in most mild winter areas, in cool damp winter areas such as Seattle, cool rains can mean plants rotting. Consider growing plants in raised beds. This will keep the soil well drained and help avoid water logging. Amend the soil before planting and add an organic fertilizer at or just after planting time. That's usually enough to carry your plants through the winter.
Colorful carrot varieties can be sown in fall in zones 8 and 9 for a winter harvest. Choose varieties adapted to winter growing.
Peas make a great fall crop. Snow peas are easier to grow than English peas because you don't have to wait for them to fill out to eat.
Winter is cool season crop time. Greens, such as arugula, spinach, collards, lettuce, Swiss chard, mustard and kale, thrive. Root crops, such as carrots, beets, onions and radishes, grow well. Brassicas, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, form large heads. Legumes, such as fava beans and peas, grow and flourish. All these cool loving vegetables have better flavor and texture than if you tried to grow them during the heat of spring or summer.
Which crops to grow and the timing of planting in your specific area will depend on your location. In zone 7 gardens and the Pacific Northwest, greens are probably the best bet for an October planting. In zones 8 and 9, you have a broad palette of cool season crop options. Look for varieties adapted to your region and for winter planting (check out the resources listed at the end of this article). For example, 'Winter Keeper' beet, January King' cabbage and 'Royal Chantenay' carrots are some varieties adapted to winter growing conditions.
In most of these areas winter means regular rainfall, so watering is usually not an issue. Unless you're in the Pacific Northwest, it's still a good idea to mulch your plantings to preserve the soil moisture and keep the weeds away. In the Pacific Northwest, the abundant winter rains combined with consistently cool temperatures can lead to rot, slugs and snails. Mulching just makes it worse.
While most pests are not active in winter, cabbage worms and slugs are two that never seem to rest. Watch for cabbageworm droppings on your Brassica plants and spray Bt to control them at the first sign of their activity. Slugs and snails are a particular problem in cool areas. Protect raised beds with copper flashing. Slugs and snails don't like touching copper. Add iron phosphate baits, such as Sluggo, around plants. Consider covering plants with a floating row cover tucked tightly into the soil to prevent the snails and slugs from entering the bed. Row covers have another benefit.
For gardeners concerned about freezing temperatures, the row cover can protect plants into the low 20 degrees F, while allowing light, rain and air to the plants
Harvest crops as needed. While many vegetables are picked and finished, such as cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and beets, some keep producing in winter. Many greens, such has spinach, lettuce and mesclun mix, can be cut a number of times to the ground and allowed to regrow in winter. As long as the temperatures stay cool, they will not bolt. Broccoli heads will continue to send out side shoots, and peas and fava beans will continue to flower and fruit. Even if they go into a holding pattern during December and January, they will quickly start growing and producing again when the longer days arrive in February.
So with some planning and proper maintenance you can enjoy a winter garden that provides fresh produce to your family right through the dark days until spring.
Other Stories on Winter Gardening in Warmer Climates:Charlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.