Growing Hardy Vegetables in Winter

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Cold frame in the snow

The local organic farmers all have greenhouses, but still they talk of "waiting for the light" before they sow seeds of cold-hardy vegetables in late winter. What they mean is that they are waiting for days to become longer and brighter, which happens quickly starting in mid-February. Where I live in Virginia, each day is now two minutes longer than the one that came before. In Liverpool, Jeremy’s garden is gaining four minutes of light with each passing day.

This is excellent news for the big four of cold-hardy vegetables: mache (lambs lettuce or corn salad), spinach, kale, and cabbage. When given sturdy protection from ice, snow and cold winds, I have often seen these little guys survive temperatures as low as 10°F (-12°C).  The seedlings must be started indoors because soil temperatures remain too cold to support strong germination, but enclosures that trap solar heat help warm the soil, too.

Wind-Proof Cold Protection

After experimenting with many methods, I have come to rely on three simple set-ups – a cold frame, plastic-covered tunnels reinforced with arches of wire fencing, and bed toppers made from old windows. Here are the pros and cons of each.

  • Cold frames block wind beautifully as long as they have a heavy lid that won’t cave in when loaded with ice, snow or heavy rain. I have built several cold frames over the years, and each one has gotten better than its predecessor. The frame I’m using now has a tempered glass shower door for a lid, so you could sit on it and it wouldn’t break. I bought the shower door used, and built a wood box to fit its dimensions. The shower door came with hinge attached, and I was able to figure out a way to screw the hinge onto the box. The great thing about this frame is its absolute dependability. On the down side, it’s heavy and bulky to move, and I have little use for it once summer has begun. 
  • Row cover in the snow
    Reinforced tunnels can stand up to a snowfall
  • Reinforced tunnels made from arches of wire fencing or concrete reinforcing wire, covered with plastic securely tucked in at the edges, also do a great job protecting hardy seedlings. Simple hoops covered with plastic will not do; the wet snows typical of late spring will smash such a tunnel flat, and gusty winds can do wretched things to slack plastic tunnels. But if you already have tomato cages made from concrete reinforcing wire, you can easily bend them out into arches and then cover them tightly with plastic. When weather turns very cold, I usually cover such frames with an old blanket to help them hold more warmth. 
  • Window frame toppers have become my favorite way to push the season because they offer the sturdiness of a cold frame with the convenience of tunnels. My windows came from an old house, so I carefully cleaned away old paint (which probably contained lead), added a coat of latex to seal in the old paint, and re-caulked the panes before bringing them into the garden. To install them, it takes me about ten minutes to set up a frame of staked boards and slip in a couple of windows. I can ventilate these window-topped beds from the side, by leaving gaps in the frame, and/or from the top, by spacing the windows a finger’s width apart.
Cold frame made from window frames
Window frame toppers

When you match up cold-hardy vegetables with durable winter protection, you can get a serious head start on spring. Have you discovered ingenious methods that solve late winter challenges in your garden, perhaps using recycled materials? Post them below to share them with GrowVeg’s growing international community of food-minded gardeners.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"Thank-you, Barbara, this is exactly the kind of information I need! In time, too, for me to get started on all four, as I love them! I can't wait for your next instalment!"
Kevin Hannan on Saturday 20 February 2010
"OMG!I would hate to have to battle that kind of cold. Were I live we have to worry about the drought and hot hot hot sun. Got any suggestions for that?"
Kimbery Mitchell on Sunday 21 February 2010
"Hi Kimberly, you may like to check out this article that Barbara wrote on Dryland Gardening which could be very applicable to your area:"
Jeremy Dore on Sunday 21 February 2010
"Do you have to warm the soil somehow for cold frame or greenhouse gardening? (I'm in Michigan)"
kxj on Wednesday 24 February 2010
"Cold frames and greenhouses will warm the soil naturally by trapping heat from sunlight and protecting from wind-chill (although some greenhouses are also heated using paraffin burners). Sunlight can raise the temperature significantly during sunny cold days but you may need to keep and eye on them and open any cold frames if it gets too hot inside them otherwise your plants can swing to very high temperatures in the day."
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 24 February 2010

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