We live on the outskirts of Greenville, SC, at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. We’re in Agricultural Zone 7b, which means we live in a moderate climate zone. Each winter for the past several years, we’ve experienced low temps in the single digits, frigid by our standards but downright balmy compared to places like Maine and North Dakota.
Something else that’s been consistent over the past 4+ years: not a day has gone by that we don’t harvest food from our garden. Yes, even on the days when it was 5°F, we bundled up, went outside, and picked a pile of fresh garden produce.
How? Well, keep reading and we’ll tell you how you can have a fall and winter garden that produces lots of fresh, organic food even if you live in the most extreme climate regions!
Garden Year Around: 5 Ways to Grow a Fall and Winter Garden
We know a lot about fall and winter gardening through both hands-on experience, research, and talking to gardeners who live in some of the coldest areas in North America.
Now, before you start your cool weather garden, you should first consider your agricultural zone. You can look your Ag Zone up here.
Why should you know your ag zone? Someone gardening in Florida is going to have a very different approach than someone gardening in northern Minnesota in every season of the year, including the cold months.
Now matter where you live, you’ll find tips below to help you grow food throughout the fall and winter.
1. Select cold hardy plants.
It’s important to understand certain gardening terminology. A tomato or pumpkin plant is not going to grow well in sub-freezing temperatures. In fact, they’ll be a limp blob on the ground after the plant cells freeze, burst, then thaw again. However, other plants are adapted to survive frosts and even freezes just fine.
How do you know which ones will do best? Look for plants or seeds labeled “cold-hardy,” “frost tolerant,” and “freeze-tolerant.” There’s a little bit of ambiguity here depending on who is doing the labeling, and no edible plants undergo abundant growth in sub-freezing temperatures.
With our seed labels, we indicate whether the variety is “light frost tolerant” or “hard frost tolerant,” which means:
- light frost tolerant = plants that can survive temperatures between 36°-32°F
- hard frost tolerant = plants that can survive extended temperatures between 32°-25°F
Other terminology you might see on cold weather plant/seed labels:
- survives a light freeze = 28°-32°F
- survives a hard freeze = 28°-25°F (note that sustained temperatures below 25°F will kill most unprotected vegetable plants)
- pansies (yes, they’re edible)
- Austrian winter peas (their shoots are a delicious green and they’re a great soil-building cover crop)
- certain cold-hardy kale varieties
Notice I said “without protection” before that last list. That means these plants are ideal for a winter garden if you live in warm to moderate climate zone (Zones 6-10) and you don’t want to take any extra precautions to cover your plants on the cold nights/days when temps go below freezing.
One other trick here: understanding the microclimates in your garden can make a big difference. Planting near a south facing wall that retains heat and gets early morning sun versus a cold north facing wall can make the difference between dead and thriving plants in the same geographic location.
2. Use low tunnels.
Let’s say you want to grow cool weather crops in your garden throughout the fall and winter that do just fine as long as temps rarely drop below freezing. Problem is, your low temps regularly dip below 25°F, like ours do. What to do? Start using technology.
One of the easiest and best ways to protect large garden beds is by using low tunnels.
Read our detailed article about using low tunnels. Low tunnels are basically miniature hoop houses that can significantly increase the soil and air temperatures immediately around your plants. They also block wind, which can amplify freezing temperatures under certain conditions.
- Low tunnels for small gardens/garden beds – this is a good one that’s 9 ft long x 2 ft wide x 18″ tall.
- Low tunnels for larger gardens – you’re better off buying the individual components and cutting them to the exact specs of your garden. Use 6 mil clear Greenhouse Film (this is what we use) and these hoops to go underneath.
3. Use cold frames.
Another season-extending technology that’s great for gardeners growing in smaller spaces is cold frames. You can’t protect as much space with a cold frame as you can with low tunnels. However, you can DIY your own cold frames for free with readily available supplies you might already have on hand.
To learn more about how to use or make DIY cold frames, you’ll want to read this article by Eliza Lord at GrowJourney. If you’d rather skip the DIY process and buy a quality cold frame that will last for years, here’s a really good pre-made cold frame that we recommend (picture below).
4. Use our DIY indoor grow light system.
We’re gardening addicts who start our garden seeds indoors twice each year (in the winter for spring and summer gardening and in the summer for fall and winter gardening.) We also like to grow lettuce and other greens year round, even when it’s out of season for us. (Lettuce does not like our hot summers or our sub-freezing winter temps.)
To do these things well, we needed an indoor grow light system. The problem? The pre-made grow light systems that looked like a good match for our needs costed way more money than we wanted to spend. So we figured out how to make our own DIY grow light system that’s really easy to set up, maintain, and break down – and it costs a small fraction of the cost of a comparable pre-made system.
Read our article with detailed instructions on how to make your own DIY grow light system, (we have instructions for both a small 30″ x 24″ x 14″ and the large 74″ x 48″ x 18″ setup that we use).
With this grow light system, you can easily grow any garden plants you want up to about 12-15″ tall no matter what the temperatures are outside.
5. Consider using a miniature greenhouse.
If you live in a cold climate region where cold frames and low tunnels won’t cut it and you don’t have space indoors for a grow light system, you might want to consider investing in a miniature heated greenhouse.
When visiting a friend in the mountains of North Carolina, we fell in love with this one (pictured below). It was a cold sunny day when we visited, but when we stepped inside his miniature greenhouse, the temperatures were actually warm and the rows of plants inside were thriving in the natural sunlight.
On really cold days and nights, he simply uses a small electric heater to maintain ideal temperature ranges inside the greenhouse (for cool weather crops 45-55°F is ideal). Any time the temperatures are too warm inside (over 55°F), he pops open the roof and wall windows.
Whether you want to go no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech and whether you want to go DIY or invest in a pre-made technology, we hope you found this article helpful! Just because freezing weather is headed your way doesn’t mean you can’t dream big with your fall and winter gardening plans!