The Best Winter Vegetables List
Growing Winter Vegetables Requires Careful Crop Selection
The best winter vegetables list is far different from a summer list but growing cold season crops is very rewarding.
Have you grown a winter garden yet? If you have, you already know that successfully growing items on a winter vegetables list can be tricky.
First of all, let’s redefine winter. Crops will not grow in snow or frozen ground. They won’t grow without adequate light. And though winter vegetables survive freezing nights, they thrive at 40-60ºF. Cultivating crops in the winter can mean several things: You plant short-season vegetables which are harvested before the snow stays. You use season extenders to keep the soil unfrozen and temperatures higher. Or winter in your area means light frosts but nothing hard or long term.
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If you live in zone nine, you may not be growing winter squash but Roodnerf Brussels Sprouts, at 100 days to maturity, will thrive. Zone seven may mean starting Parel Cabbage and Golden Ball Turnip, both fewer than 60 days, in October so they’re harvested by Christmas. And zones three and colder mean winter gardening happens within a greenhouse.
When you make your winter vegetables list, consider your warmest garden spots, available sunlight, and how you’ll protect crops if temperatures swing too low for them to do well. Also consider waiting a few months until the coldest nights are over, then starting crops within a greenhouse to transplant outside when the weather improves.
The Best Winter Vegetables List
Brassicas: Also called “cole crops” or “crucifers,” these include kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Asian cabbages, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips, kohlrabi, and rutabagas.
The most sensitive of these are bok choy, cauliflower, and Chinese cabbage. They can withstand a light freeze (29-32ºF) but may get damaged through too many hard frosts. Grow these during light winters but keep frost protection on hand for weather dipping below 28 degrees. Choose choy for harvests within four to six weeks and longer-season cauliflower if your winters are mild.
The hardiest brassicas include kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, radishes, mustard greens, and turnips. Though all these crops prefer sunlight and warmth, they will withstand frigid nights. But if your soil is constantly frozen in both day and night, provide a method of warming the garden bed.
Brassicas range in maturity dates from 29-day French radishes to 100-day rutabagas. Short- and long-season varieties exist within nearly all varieties.
Spinach: Cold weather is spinach’s best friend. It’ll grow for months as a cut-and-come-back crop, but if temperatures soar, it bolts. Spinach is also very hardy, sitting frost-glazed after a winter storm and waiting for the sun to come back so it can grow again. Direct-seed and encourage germination by placing clear plastic or glass over the garden bed, then remove protection to let seedlings acclimate to the cold. Note that New Zealand spinach is not the same; it’s frost-sensitive and will perish if temperatures drop too low.
Root Vegetables: This broad list includes many brassicas named above, in addition to beets, carrots, and parsnips. Roots fare so well in cold ground that leaving them in place is a recommended method for how to store vegetables in winter. But all root crops need three things to thrive: sunlight for the tops, adequate water, and unfrozen ground. To encourage growth during the coldest days, warm soil with transparent material such as clear plastic or glass. Soil needs to be moist, not wet.
Alliums: Winter is an important part of allium development. Garlic, planted in the fall, overwinters beneath mulch then produces bulbs midsummer. Leeks, such as the Scottish heirloom called Giant Musselburgh, are so winter-hardy that leaving them in place during the snowy season ensures larger harvests the next year. Growing onions and shallots takes longer in cold months than summer because they prefer temperate weather. If this year’s alliums haven’t matured by the time snow falls, it’s okay to leave them in place. Brush snow away to pull enough for what you need for dinner. Unless your frosts are intense, alliums will be fine.
Swiss Chard: Homesteaders preparing for possible disaster should keep viable chard seeds in their inventories. That’s because chard grows at 100ºF or 20ºF, in poor soil or rich. It toughens up and holds out near-zero degrees, waiting for the sun to come back so it can grow again. And chard is a valuable source of nutrients during a time when other greenery is scarce.
Lettuce: Often the first to be sown in early spring, lettuce will thrive as long as the ground is thawed. Certain varieties are more tolerant than others; radicchio doesn’t like a hard frost but colorful wild lettuce is very hardy. Sow as soon as the ground can be worked. If seeds don’t germinate within a week, warm soil by laying plastic or glass overtop.
Most Herbs: Basil is finicky; it will blacken and die before frost even settles in, which is why it doesn’t survive well in a refrigerator. But most other herbs are first to emerge in the spring and need very little protection. Some rosemary varieties are hardy and shrublike but the more tender types should be planted in containers and kept warm in the winter. Parsley, oregano, sage, mint, and thyme thrive in the cold, going dormant in the winter and coming back before the snow stops falling.
Cover Crops: Sometimes, the best winter gardening solution is to improve the ground for next year. Cover crops are rarely on a winter vegetables list because they don’t produce immediate food. Plant in fall, cultivate in the winter with minimal tending, then till under in the spring before you plant vegetables again. These green manures add carbon, feed microbes which provide nitrogen, increase organic material, and prevent erosion. Try legumes, such as red clover, for the lowest maintenance. Or grow cereal grains such as winter wheat for cover during the cold months, allowing them to mature the next year to feed you or your animals.
And which crops should wait until spring? Do not attempt squash or pumpkins, either sweet potatoes or standard “Irish” potatoes, corn, melons, cucumbers, okra, or any other nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tomatillos. These grow best at 70ºFor warmer and will die in a light frost. Even greenhouses within zones seven and colder should wait until spring unless they have dependable supplementary heat.
No matter which crops you grow, remember a few rules for success.
- Planter boxes freeze long before the ground will. Raised beds freeze next. Root vegetables are safest within the actual ground.
- Layering mulch at the base of plants keeps roots warmer.
- Vegetables planted beside south-facing brick walls can flourish while the rest of the garden freezes.
- Water acts as an insulator. Dry cold is more damaging than wet cold. Watering your garden before a freeze can protect roots. Do not wet the foliage.
- If plastic touches foliage, plants will freeze through the plastic. Be sure any plastic frost protection is suspended above leaves, as with a hoop house.
What’s on your winter vegetables list? Do you have any growing tips to share?
|Temperature Range||Crops with Tolerance||Special Considerations|
|32ºF and Above||Basil, beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant,
melons, okra, peppers, potatoes,
squash, tomatoes, tomatillo
|Frost protection can keep these alive during cold nights.
Do not let plastic touch foliage.
Plants won’t thrive until the weather is above 60 degrees.
|29-32ºF||Artichokes, bok choy, cauliflower, celery
Chinese cabbage, peas, radicchio
|Provide frost protection if temperatures drop below 29.
Seeds need temperatures above 60 to germinate.
Plants thrive above 50 degrees.
|28ºF and Below||Arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage,
collards and mustard greens, kale, kohlrabi,
leeks, lettuce, mint, onions and shallots,
parsley, parsnips, oregano, radishes, sage,
spinach, Swiss chard, thyme, turnips
|Plants won’t grow in frozen ground, ice, or unmelted snow.
Use season extenders to warm soil and air enough for
cold weather crops to flourish. Though they won’t die in the
cold, these crops will grow much slower than in springtime.