Harvesting vegetables from a winter garden takes a bit of planning: gardening in January really means doing the bulk of the gardening before January. That means planting the right veggies at the right time of year. It means paying attention to maturity dates and hours of sunlight each day. Once sunlight drops below 10 hours per day (usually around mid-November in Cape Breton until mid-February), everything stops growing. The trick is to get everything in the ground with some growth on before then.
1. Plant the right veggies.
You want cold-hardy and cold-tolerant veggies. You’re not going to harvest tomatoes in January. Winter is all about kale and its cousins (the brassica family). Look for mâche, mizuna, and claytonia. Don’t forget root veggies (carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, etc). Some herbs, like parsley, are cold-hardy, too.
2. Plant cold-hardy veggies at the right time.
Eating veggies in January often means planting them in the spring, summer, or fall. Some veggies, like Brussels sprouts, are started indoors as seeds/seedlings in April or May. Others, like kale, are either planted early or not planted at all—new greens shoot off older green plants in the late summer/early fall when the temperatures cool and rain returns.
The best timing for winter greens is to plant greens in the plot where the garlic is harvested in late July/August.
3. Pay careful attention to “mature by” dates on seed packages and know when your first frost date is for your region.
Niki Jabbour, in her book The Year-Round Vegetable Farmer, goes into this in a lot more detail, but basically you gotta time your late summer plantings for fall/winter harvests with the date the plant is expected to mature. So, say you wanna plant some spinach. If the maturity date is 45 days, then count back from your first expected frost date (and add a week or 2 just in case). Since I live in Hardiness Zone 5b/6a my first frost date is usually around October 15-31 (proximity to the ocean usually gives us a later frost date—sometimes well into November). So, for an Oct. 15 harvest, I need to plant my spinach seeds around the first week of September or the last week of August.
This part takes a bit of planning and it’s tough to get it exact ‘cause there’s so many things that can affect the growth of a plant.
4. Cover your veggies to keep them “warm.”
There’s lots of ways you can cover your plots for winter: cold frames, row cover, low or mini hoop tunnels made of plastic, straw bales, or a straw/leaves mulch (again, check out Jabbour’s book for more details on covering your crops). I usually use a low tunnel: thin wire with plastic over top—though the wire can get pretty smushed by snow. Because the plants are cold-hardy, you’re not really trying to make sure they don’t freeze—you’re just protecting them from the elements. Also, once it snows, snow acts as an insulator. I’ve been making sure I dig out my tunnels after each snow as I want the sun to warm and eventually grow the veggies. If you’re not gonna eat the veggies till spring, you can keep the tunnels buried in snow until spring.
5. Harvest your veggies at the right time of day.
Pick veggies between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. That way they have time to defrost, slowly, outside. Harvesting earlier or later means a much faster, indoor defrost which also means mushy greens.