By Dr. Mercola
Think about the last time you strolled down the produce aisle of your neighborhood grocery store in the middle of winter. If your grocer is like most, the "fresh veggies" were completely bedraggled at that time of year, looking pale and wilted and completely uninspiring. The produce that looked better was probably grown in the southern hemisphere, thousands of miles away, with a price tag to match the giant ecological footprint needed to transport it to your store from some far-away grower—most likely in another country.
Nutrients deteriorate with time after a vegetable is harvested, so it's likely the nutrient profile of your imported produce pales in comparison to that grown and harvested locally. This nutritional deficit worsens during winter as the distance from farm to table grows.
As the cost of organic produce has skyrocketed (along with just about all consumables), many of you have taken the plunge into backyard gardening. In fact, between 2008 and 2009, there was a 19 percent increase in the number of home gardens. Why are so many of you starting your own gardens?
- You get higher quality produce in terms of nutritional quality and flavor, uncontaminated with toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other harmful chemical agents.
- Your produce is always fresh—you pick food when it's actually ripe, and it's on your plate within minutes or hours, as opposed to weeks or months.
- You can save a great deal of money by growing your own veggies. For what you would pay for two weeks' worth of salad greens for a family of four, you could be able to plant your garden for the whole season.
- Gardening is good for you—it's one of the forms of exercise that many healthy elderly people can do until the very end of their lives. If you garden barefoot, you receive a bonus in the form of Earthing. By having your feet in contact with the bare soil, you pick up the flow of electrons from the Earth, which neutralize free radicals in your body, like a constant "infusion" of antioxidants.
- Gardening is good for the Earth because it shrinks our ecological footprint, reduces soil erosion, protects water quality, promotes biodiversity, and helps beautify your community. It also strengthens family ties by uniting families in a common goal and provides an opportunity for you to teach your children where food really comes from.
Most people have a "May-September romance" with their gardens—but what about turning that into a year-around committed relationship? Have you ever considered growing a WINTER vegetable garden?
A Winter Garden That Will Make Your Neighbors GREEN With Envy
Winter gardening is far easier than you might think. If you are tempted to hang up your garden gloves in September, you might want to reconsider. You could be harvesting spinach, beets, and carrots in February, while your neighbors are still battling their winter blues and longing for the whispers of spring.
Many vegetables grow and even THRIVE in cooler temperatures. Many concentrate their sugars in cooler weather, resulting in better flavor during the fall and winter months. Even in the northernmost areas of the U.S., a wide variety of vegetables can be grown, especially with the assistance of a few simple temperature-shielding strategies that I'll be talking about later, such as row covers and cold frames.
But in more Southerly regions, you don't even need those!
One of the greatest benefits of a winter garden is the savings to your grocery bill. Produce costs more during the winter, especially organic produce. Many winter vegetables ship poorly, so freshness is compromised. It makes even more sense to grow your own food in the winter than in the summer. But the benefits to a winter garden don't end there.
- There are fewer pests and fewer weeds to deal with in cooler months than during the summer.
- Mother Nature takes care of some of your garden chores between September and May—she does the watering. In some regions, you can skip watering altogether and let the winter rains do it for you.
- The cold winter ground is Nature's own refrigerator. You can "store" root vegetables in the ground and harvest them as you need them—for example, carrots and beets keep very well this way.
Gardeners Beware: Garden Chemicals Can Be Toxic
One of the greatest advantages of being a home gardener is controlling exactly what goes into your food and soil. There are now millions of organic products on the market, as well as numerous books and websites offering organic gardening advice. The organic gardening explosion testifies to a wonderful shift in people's attitudes about food.
The EPA considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides and 30 percent of all insecticides carcinogenic. Pesticides may cause an extra 4 million cancer cases among Americans.
The problem is that pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides bioaccumulate. Once these toxins are dumped onto our plants and soil, they are very hard to get rid of. Each year tons upon tons of these poisons are sprayed on farms, which then run off through the soil into streams and rivers, ending up in lakes and underground aquifers, rivers, and oceans. The damage from this continual massive toxic runoff is very hard to undo.
Bioaccumulation also occurs in your own body, and these chemicals are neurotoxic. For example, pesticides have recently been linked to Parkinson's disease. They may also be responsible for the honeybee die-off. And synthetic fertilizers have had a host of unintended consequences to food and the environment, and to the sustainability of our food system. We now know that synthetic nitrogen from fertilizers results in weaker soil and weaker plants. They are also a source of air and water pollution because they volatize, leach and runoff. Organic fertilizers do not.
You can protect yourself and the Earth from damage by these toxic chemicals by gardening organically. But be aware that, just because a product is organic doesn't mean it's necessarily environmentally friendly—some organic pesticides have a higher environmental impact than conventional ones. Remember, not all weeds are bad! And some are not only edible but offer great nutritional benefits.
Things to Consider BEFORE You Start Moving Dirt
In your exuberance from reading this article, you may be tempted to dive right in. But there are some practical considerations. Taking the time to plan NOW will save you headaches later. A winter garden does not mean waiting until winter to plant a garden. Planning a winter garden begins in the spring, with the ultimate goal of harvesting in the winter. Timing will be perfect (October) for planting garlic from cloves. Winter gardening is basically about extending the growing season. Some plants are grown for fall and winter harvesting, whereas others are planted to "overwinter" for an early spring harvest.
Either way, timing your planting is important, and timing depends on the type of veg you're planting and your "hardiness zone." As an aside, these zones are now changing as a result of global climate patterns, which you can read more about here.
What and When to Plant
For your winter garden, your most important date to know is your "first frost" date. You'll want to plant your seeds early enough that the plants will be established before getting subjected to a light freeze. So your first step is to check your hardiness zone to see when your first frost is expected.
Most winter veggies are planted in mid to late summer so they are strong and ready for when the temperatures drop, and then ripe for harvest in winter or early spring. Timing this depends on how long each plant takes to reach maturity. Some vegetables, such as parsnips and Brussels sprouts, actually develop a better flavor if they are kissed by a light frost.
The following tables list the best vegetables for a winter garden and how long it takes each to mature, on average. Of course, there are certain varieties of each veggie that are more suitable for cooler temperatures, and the seed packet often gives you this information. If not, make use of the staff's expertise at your local nursery—they usually know what varieties perform best in your area and are usually eager to help.
90 Days to Maturity
60 Days to Maturity
✓ Early carrots
✓ Early cabbage
✓ Collard greens
✓ Swiss chard
30 Days to Maturity
Herbs such as thyme, rosemary and sage will also do fine during a mild winter. Parsley and cilantro can be reseeded year-round in many places, whenever a fresh patch is desired. Unless you have very warm winters, avoid trying to grow corn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, and melons during the winter, as they are primarily warmer weather crops.
This page has a handy timetable to guide your seed sowing. Keep in mind that these dates are based on the climate in Sumner, Washington, so the timetable may shift for your geographic region and gardening zone. There are really no hard and fast rules for when specific crops must be planted. All of this requires a bit of trial and error… but that's half the fun!
Where to Plant
You don't necessarily have to designate a separate winter garden space. If you already have a summer garden going, most of your veggies will be harvested by late August, leaving an empty bed just in time for planting fall and winter crops.
Be creative! You can tuck winter crops into little nooks and crannies of your yard.
For example, as those annual pansies finish up and become scraggly, you can pull them out, and then sprinkle a few veggie seeds into that spot and top it off with a little fresh garden mix and compost. Then come spring, you have veggies where the pansies were. Or, consider edging an 18-inch path along the sidewalk to your front door with a colorful carpet of winter greens. By the time the plants are a few inches tall, you will need to thin them—just pull out a few for an instant salad of fresh baby greens in November!
You can also plant many veggies in containers. Container gardening is a great way to have a small garden if you live in a condo or have limited space. If you live in the city, you might even consider a rooftop garden, or a vertical garden." Some folks are even getting into aquaponics, which combines hydroponics with fish to fertilize the plants, using less than 2 percent of the water and one-tenth of the energy of conventional farming, for ten times the vegetable yield!
But getting back to more conventional outdoor gardens, think about how far you will want to walk to access your garden in the wintertime.
You may want easy access for grabbing something from the garden on those cold, dark wintery evenings.
Or, if you want to force yourself to walk more, then plant it a ways away from the door. Just remember that on cold and rainy winter days, you MIGHT not want to journey to the far ends of your property to snip a sprig of parsley. The point is to consider how the season will impact your energy level and lifestyle, and plan accordingly. You also need to consider where other critters might have access to your garden goodies—like deer, if you live in an area where this is an issue.
Tips for Preparing and Planting Your Winter Garden
Here are some tips to assist you in the preparation of your winter garden bed. (Most of the following tips come from organic gardening expert Howard Garrett, also known as The Dirt Doctor.)
First, the DON'T'S:
- Don't remove native soil unless building the raised beds causes drainage problems. Existing native soil is an important part of the bed preparation mix.
- Don't till wet soil. Tilling, forking or digging holes in wet soil does damage by squeezing the soil particles together, compacting it and eliminating the air spaces needed for healthy soil life.
- Don't use peat moss, pine bark or washed concrete sand. These products are problematic, especially when compared to the natural organic choices.
- Don't spray toxic herbicides. Spraying toxic herbicides anytime is a bad idea, but in the winter, it's even worse because they don't kill dormant grasses and weeds.
And now for the DOs:
- Remove unwanted vegetation wisely. Scrape away any existing weeds and grass and toss that material into the compost pile or replant the sod elsewhere. Always remove the grass BEFORE you do any tilling. Tilling first drives the reproductive part of the grasses and weeds down into the ground, which will create a weed problem. Organic herbicides can be used in the summer, but physical removal (including the root) is still better.
- Raise the beds. Walls aren't essential, but the top of the beds should be flat and higher than the surrounding grades with sloped edges for drainage. This lifting happens naturally if proper amounts of amendments are added to the native soil.
- Add amendments. Add 4 - 6" of compost, dry molasses or other organic fertilizer (2 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.), zeolite (10 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.), lava sand (10 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.), greensand (4 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.), and whole ground horticultural cornmeal (2 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.). If your budget allows, add one-half inch of decomposed granite. Rototill or fork to a total depth of 8 inches.
- Make mycorrhizae your new best friend. Mycorrhizae are fungi that interact symbiotically with the roots of plants, resulting in great benefits for both. Garden supply stores are now carrying several mycorrhizae products that will make your garden plants thrive, dramatically improving root strength, water and nutrient transport into the plant, and better competitiveness against weeds.
- Moisten beds before planting. Planting beds should be moistened after being prepared and before the planting begins (moist but not sopping wet). Do not plant in dry soil because tender young roots will dehydrate quickly as they try to grow; roots of any transplants should be sopping wet and thoroughly hydrated.
- Bare root plants. Pot-bound plants can resist water, which results in unhealthy root development. Soak root balls in water for at least 30 minutes or until they are thoroughly saturated. Remove most if not all of the soil and synthetic fertilizer pellets. Separate the rootballs (and even trim off the perimeter if root bound), and spread the roots out in a radial pattern, and then cover them with prepared bed soil, for healthy root development.
- Plant high. Set plants high with the top of the rootballs slightly higher than the surrounding soil. This is especially critical on woody plants—make sure the trunk flares are uncovered and visible. Setting the plant too low can cause poor growth or drowning.
- Mulch beds after planting. Add 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch after planting. Use shredded native tree trimmings for trees, shrubs and ground cover, and a thin layer of compost for annuals and perennials. Never pile mulch onto the stems of plants.
- Harvest winter veggies in the warmth of the day. Wait until the plants have had a few hours to get well above freezing in their protected environment.
Create a Microclimate Using Cold Frames, Cloches, and Row Covers
If you live in an area where temperatures routinely drop below 25 degrees F, you may need the assistance of row covers or cold frames for successful winter gardening. These don't have to be fancy or expensive. You can see how these work in the second video at the top of this article.
According to Eliot Coleman of VegetableGardener.com:
"A cold frame is a simple bottomless box with a removable glass or plastic lid that protects plants inside from excessively low temperatures, wind, snow, and rain. It creates a microclimate that is a zone and a half warmer than your garden. My garden may be in Maine, but the plants in my cold frame think they're in New Jersey. A cold frame in New Jersey provides Georgia weather. The result is a harvest of fresh vegetables all winter long."
You can look at pictures of his cold frame, as well as learn how to construct your own, at the link above. And this webpage has numerous tutorials and videos related to cold frame gardening.
Row covers are simply lightweight plant protection blankets that can be draped over a row of plants during cold spells. You can choose from a variety of row covers, based on how much sunlight they let in and how much air circulation they allow. Simple row covers can be held in place with metal anchors, dirt, bricks, rocks, or even filled water jugs. Once the covers are no longer needed, you can store them away until next year.
Another lightweight, portable structure to shelter plants is called a cloche. Cloches are informal structures, very similar to a "hoop house" or "high tunnel." These are built using PVC pipe bent into hoops, with plastic sheeting draped across the piping and anchored down with rocks or filled water jugs. Of course, it's always useful to have a greenhouse, as your budget and space allows.
Organic Pest Control
Although pest control is easier in the winter, you will probably have SOME irritating freeloaders. It is possible to control pests without toxic chemical products. But there is an art to it—organic products require a more patient and persistent approach, as opposed to the "sledge hammer" approach of toxic chemicals. According to the Dirt Doctor, biodiversity of microbes, insects and animals is the best long-term control.
On his website, Howard Garrett offers a few organic products for sale to home gardeners. But you can also make your own inexpensive organic pest control products using ordinary items you probably already have in your pantry. For example, a homemade garden spray that will discourage most pests combines mashed garlic paste with a little cayenne pepper or horseradish.
Add a small amount of this mixture to a gallon of water and let it sit for a day or two, shaking occasionally. Then just spray it on the affected plant. You may want to test the spray out first by spraying a small amount onto a few leaves, to make sure it's not so strong that it burns them.
Garrett suggests that, for aphids (a common garden pest plaguing backyard gardeners and professional gardeners alike), you can control them pretty well using a mixture of compost tea, molasses, and orange oil. He adds that lemon Joy dishwashing soap mixed at a rate of one ounce per gallon of water also works. With a little trial and error, you may come up with your own dynamite mixture.
For more details on these types of natural solutions to pests of all kinds, I recommend the book Dead Snails Leave No Trails by Nancarrow and Taylor, or visit the website BeyondPesticides.org. They have a section on do-it-yourself natural solutions to a wide range of pest problems, along with how to find pest management companies that use non-toxic products.
More Gardening Resources
Our main gardening source is The Dirt Doctor. Several gardening sites also highly recommend a book by Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch called Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long. Their website Four Season Farm includes a number of resources that will help you learn about year-round gardening.
As far as online resources, here are several others to help you along your path:
Growing your own food is the wave of the future. We must all become better stewards of the land. A garden for all seasons is a great step forward, and the seeds you sow now will reap great health benefits later for you and your family.