Growing Food All Winter – A ‘How-To” Post


Here at Hillside Gardens in Auburn, it has been an exercise is pushing the envelope to see how sustainable we can really be in the seasons, even through the droughts, mild winters (which let bugs get bad in the summer), very cold winters, over-wet rainy times where torrents of water wash the topsoil off, high winds, and all the other things that happen here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mtns. Not only is the challenge the weather, but also the rock hard Georgia clay and the steep hillside we grow things on. Most of the property has had to be terraced just to have enough garden space to put in plants. Despite all those challenges, we get more production of edible plants in the fall and winter than all summer long.

Hillside Gardens garden pathway between terraces and raised beds.

Hillside Gardens garden pathway between terraces and raised beds.

I have heard so many people say they only grow a garden in the summer, mostly for tomatoes. They don’t even know they can get food to grow in cold weather. And they don’t have a notion of how wonderful that plot behind their house can be all year long. It’s an activity that pays off in savings, health, and gourmet delicious food you can’t even get in the grocery store, especially fresh.

Winter vegetables include 6 kinds of lettuce, beets, collards, 3 kinds of kale, broccoli, arugula, carrots and spinach growing in early February.

Winter vegetables include 6 kinds of lettuce, beets, collards, 3 kinds of kale, broccoli, arugula, carrots and spinach growing in early February.

We don’t have a green house, we don’t have a drip system for watering, and it takes a lot of walking up and down hillsides to get to the beds. But we have built up the soil in terraced and box raised beds to a fair-thee-well. The soil was created using a layering technique called ‘sheet mulching’ or Lasagna Gardening (see the book by that name) where organic matter, native soil, manure, sand and compost are piled one upon the next in thin layers till sufficient quantity of soil-making material is achieved. A little hole is pushed aside and a handful of top soil is put in for each plant, then all is covered with a top mulching such as grass clippings or munched up leaves.

Between the workings of the roots as they grow in to this matrix, worm activity creating pathways through the mulch layers letting in air and moisture, and the natural workings of beneficial fungi growing in throughout the bulk of the soil, by the end of a season, that layering is mixed up naturally into the most glorious black loamy soil you ever saw. And because it is light and fluffy, it also has insulation properties for either very hot or very cold weather.

Recently I have been working with another technique called “Back to Eden” where over the top of the soil is put 4 to 6 inches of wood chips – not mixed in, purely on top. This is added insulation which also keeps in the moisture but allows rain and watering to penetrate. Eventually the wood chips break down to make more soil, but meanwhile the water absorbing quality of the wood chips acts as a sponge and keeps the soil moist without much further watering.

"Back to Eden" style planting with heavy wood chip mulching.

“Back to Eden” style planting with heavy wood chip mulching.

Starting in August I begin starting seeds in potting cells or in a very light fine soil and sand mixture. This process continues up to the first freeze, or even past that under plastic sheeting. As room is made in the summer growing areas from summer plant harvest or die-off, the fall/winter plants are planted in succession. We practice integrative planting here – rarely will you see a whole bed in one kind of plant. Usually there will be a mixture of compatible plants of various sizes and heights which compliment each other (called companion gardening or ‘plant guilds’) and around the edge plantings of garlic or onions to dissuade the bugs and slugs.

Into these beds go all the cabbage family plants such as broccoli, cabbages – including Chinese cabbage and green or red, Savoy, or bok choy types, Brussels sprouts, collards, Georgia, Gai Choy Chinese, or Japanese Mizuna mustard greens, turnips, beets and carrots, Swiss chard, Chinese peas, spinaches, parsley, many kinds of kale, and a host of lettuce varieties. Roots and greens do especially well in cold weather. Spinach will even grow through the snow. But when covered with plastic or special kinds of row cloth, the added insulation allows for all the plants to withstand very cold weather. Sometimes they will go dormant if very cold and not grow much for awhile but they won’t die. And they can be harvested through the winter. Some things such as garlic and onions will grow all winter and be harvest-able in the spring before any other vegetables can come to the table.

Cabbages, red and green, and garlic in terraced bed with wire tomato cage support - Feb '13 on a warm day.

Cabbages, red and green, and garlic in terraced bed with wire tomato cage support – Feb ’13 on a warm day.

To cover the beds, it’s important to have some kind of support to lift the plastic or cloth covers up above the plants so they aren’t squashed and have just enough air between the ground and the plastic to hold in heat and any sunlight coming in. Having cloth instead of plastic allows rain to come in through it. But it has been my experience that once you have the soil to the right dampness before putting on the covers; it doesn’t dry out in the cold.

I have had success with several techniques in getting the plastic up off the plants. There are heavy wire type supports available at nursery stores which have a little loop at the top sold for holding tall flower stalks upright, usually over 2 feet long, which when set about 4 feet apart around a garden bed will hold the plastic or cloth up without tearing it or catching.

Tomato cages when laid on their side carefully around the growing beds so they face alternative directions (the top hoop of a standard tomato cage is just the right height to lift plastic above even fairly large mustard green plants) make good supports. This is also a great way to use your cages beneficially all year instead of having to store the bulky stacks of them someplace.

Plastic cover support using tomato cages laid on their sides to keep plastic from squashing plants.

Plastic cover support using tomato cages laid on their sides to keep plastic from squashing plants.

And you can purchase PVC or heavy wire ‘tunnel’ supports from nursery supply houses.

Then when the plastic or fabric covers are laid over the supports and secured by weights such as bricks or rocks, steel fence posts or re-bar lengths, holding the covers from blowing off in the wind, around the edges of the bed. It’s a good idea also to put some kind of weights on top of the plastic here and there to keep it from ‘sailing’ and flying away in winds. I have used plastic trellis or just about anything with enough weight to keep the wind from catching the cover but not heavy enough to push the covering back down between the supports and squish the plants.

At the end of the summer season, when you are planning your winter garden, keep in mind that the root crops such as parsnips, beets, carrots, rutabaga, turnips, certain radishes, onions and garlic, and kohl-rabi (which isn’t really a root but acts like it) won’t be harvestable until late spring as roots, but the greens of them are all edible and delicious. You can use them in soups, salads, stews or just steamed if you harvest in moderation so the roots still have plenty of upper plant to support their growth. Likewise, head cabbage types will grow all winter but will not be big enough to harvest till spring. So, if you want to have things that can be eaten all winter plan on putting in lots of greens like mustards, collards, turnip greens (usually slightly different seeds than the root only varieties), lettuces, arugula, and all the leaf cabbages which don’t head up (like bok choy), Swiss chard and other delicious greens, make room for them in your planning.

Potatoes also grow well all winter. They like a rich sandy soil that can be worked easily. They are harvested in spring but late winter they can be lightly harvested by hand digging into the soil around the plant without pulling up the whole plant, for a few succulent babies (new potatoes).

Another wonderful and deliciously nutritious vegetable is the Jerusalem artichoke. It isn’t really an artichoke but because it tastes like it, got that name. Another name is the sun choke – as it is in the sunflower family. It’s a tuber that grows well even in our hard Georgia clay. It will grow up to 12 feet tall and flower with lovely smallish yellow sunflowers in September. They make nice bouquets as well and the more you pick the flowers, conventional wisdom tells us, the more roots it forms. This is real survival type food as it is very productive, can be eaten by diabetics, is one of the most delicious flavor enhancing vegetables I have ever eaten (two sliced up thinly in a stew or soup is a flavor blast), and can be eaten cooked or raw.

Jerusalem artichoke - aka sunchoke - a delicious tuber ready to add raw to salads or as a flavor enhancer for any cooked dish.

Jerusalem artichoke – aka sunchoke – a delicious tuber ready to add raw to salads or as a flavor enhancer for any cooked dish.

Once you have planted them (best up by a fence to support the tall stalks) that is a dedicated bed because even the smallest baby root if left un-harvested will make next year’s plant. I planted my first roots in the summer about 5 years ago, and harvest them usually after the first hard frost as the flavor is much sweeter then, but they can be left in the soil all winter to preserve them and dug up as the need arises. They only need to be scrubbed off, not peeled, and once cleaned and kept in a plastic bag in the frig will last up to two years! The root can be planted again in the spring or shared with neighbors.

If you have planted beets or carrots or other root vegetables (not onions or garlic which should be harvested once the stalk falls over to be pulled up and dried), you can leave them in the soil and harvest them as needed during the winter. If you plant them in the fall, they won’t be ready to harvest until about June.

Most perennial herbs can be harvested all winter if covered. We enjoy Italian flat leaf or curly parsley all winter. It’s so hearty it doesn’t even need a cover.  Oregano, thyme, chives, marjoram, rosemary, bay leaves from a bay tree, and some medicinals such as comfrey and mullein leaves can be harvested all year around, and tend to be likewise very hearty.

Once the weather stations report frost, to extend the summer vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, they can be covered as above to extend the season. But in amongst the summer plants, start to fill holes left by harvested plants with your lettuces, and whatever has grown big enough to transplant according to your winter garden plans.

I usually go out and check on my garden areas every day for a few minutes to make sure the plastic hasn’t blown off, the top weights are secure over the covers, and the deer haven’t found a way to pull off the covers and get a free meal (likewise rabbits). I bring a basket with me and as I see plants have grown big enough to pluck a leaf or two off each one, not over-harvesting since cold weather is hard on plants, even ones which don’t mind the cold too much, I carefully fold back the plastic, gather what I can, and carefully replace the covering, securing it with a weight. I have come back to the house with enough greens, even in the worst part of January or February, to make a delightful salad with broccoli leaves, lettuces, mustards, radish and beet leaves, chives, and even carrot leaves. Or enough spinach and chard to steam for dinner. I also use these greens in my soups which go all winter long on the back of the stove.

There is one other source of delicious edibles which work well in the winter – sprouting. I save my seeds in the spring from all the plants I let go to blossom and seed.

A jar of seeds saved from fall harvest waiting to be cleaned and sprouted.

A jar of seeds saved from fall harvest waiting to be cleaned and sprouted.

All the cabbage family plants make prodigious amounts of seeds – especially turnips and broccoli but all of them do this. I let the bundles of seed stalks dry in the garage and process them into jars of seeds. These are so good sprouted. I use linen sprouting bags which I make from old but in good condition table cloths, with a tie string at the top.

First soak the seeds over night in non-chlorinated water.

Sprouting seeds in non-chlorinated water soaking overnight.

Sprouting seeds in non-chlorinated water soaking overnight.

Linen sprout bag ready for sprouting seeds.

Linen sprout bag ready for sprouting seeds.

Then put the wet seeds into the seed bag, wet the bag, and hang the bag from its string over a bowl.

Sprouting bag hanging over bowl with water, for soaking twice a day. Sprouts ready in 3 to 5 days.

Sprouting bag hanging over bowl with water, for soaking twice a day. Sprouts ready in 3 to 5 days.

I like to hang the bag from a handle on the cabinet above the counter in my kitchen in a dark corner. Then I rinse the bag with seeds in the bowl with water in it twice a day. I change the water when it gets funky, but not every time. In about 3 days the seeds begin to sprout. They can go into a salad or even baked into bread then. Or you can let them keep growing till they are a couple of inches long and eat them like a snack or in stir fry or salads, or in soups. They are best eaten raw though as they are loaded with beneficial enzymes and other plant nutrients that get much diluted as the plant grows to full size. Seeds thus sprouted are one of the most nutritious things you can eat all winter as they are also loaded with vitamins and minerals. You can even put them in a smoothie or raw juice them. It’s like eating supplements in a much more delicious form than a pill.

Eating freshly grown greens that haven’t sat in a climate controlled warehouse for a few months is so much more healthy and nutritious than anything you can get from a grocery store. The quicker something goes from the ground to the mouth, the more food value it has, especially Vitamin C and others, especially the valuable enzymes. The best way to get that nutrition, which boosts the immune system and which fights colds and flu, is from your own garden. And what a money saver! A few beds of fresh winter vegetables will save you many hundreds of dollars over the four or so months of winter, it is worth the initial expense of beds, seeds, supports and covers that can be used all year long, year after year.

Good gardening and Bon Appétit

Diann Dirks

Auburn, Ga.

The Garden Lady

Mothers School of Self-Reliance

Certified Permaculture Designer

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8 Responses to Growing Food All Winter – A ‘How-To” Post

  1. Chrissy says:

    Thank you for the post. We have not been successful in our gardening the last 2 real attempts we made, but are going for it again this year.

    • didirks says:

      I’m glad to hear that you are continuing. There’s a lot to learn to garden. You might get your soil tested. It’s inexpensive through the local Extension Officers through your county – maybe $10 or so. Soil is the key ingredient. If you had bugs, it helps to go out every day and look at the plants. When you first see the bugs, hand pick them off. If you have a specific difficulty, contact me again. 🙂

  2. Good Morning Garden Lady! We have recently purchased 15 acres of unimproved (wooded) land between Gainesville and GA 400 near (but not on) L Lanier. I am wondering what fruit or nut trees you would recommend, that we could get started before we build our home out there in a few years. So far we have seen some Hickory Nut, and wild Muscadine growing wild. Also, I think I will get the soil ready for a semi-sustenance garden…If I can find a flat enough spot that can be readied w/out a back-hoe! Any thoughts?…

    • didirks says:

      Dear Becky,
      Thank you for your interest. I love that you have some good acreage and want to put productive trees and a garden there. This is very self-reliant. If you are interested in having a consultation from me as a Permaculture Designer, I would be happy to speak to you about this. Please contact me off the blog site. Being able to suggest specific plants and trees means seeing the property and how it lies, what the soil is like, any micro-climates you have (some trees are finiky about growing conditions), and what you want to eat or use. This requires some one-on-one conversations and a walk-through of your land so I know how to approach it. I suggest a food forest approach meaning inter-planting trees and perennial food or herb plantings and raised beds for annual plantings. This is an area of great interest, a great deal of research having gone into it, for me and I have built a food forest and 90 bed garden on this property. I too have a slanted space – so much so that I have developed specific solutions for hillside gardening. I’m writing a book on the subject as a matter of fact since we have so much of that kind of land here in NE Georgia and along the whole of the Appalachian region. Hillside Gardens (my garden) here in Auburn, Ga. is a demonstration garden and Food Forest and I offer tours at no charge. Email me at: Best, Diann

  3. Me again! I am wondering if the berries and such growing at bush level get enough sunlight in the forest garden. We realize that we will have to do some serious clearing…(but not too much I hope)

    • didirks says:

      Dear Becky, There are many berries which I grow in my food forest. Some are shade tolerant, some need full sun. Being in the Piedmont area of Georgia, we have a number of native berries which grow in less light or in ‘edge’ areas. Some like hedges which limit full light just by being close together. Blueberries like ‘edges’ and semi-shade. Hawthorne berries are often used in hedges but do well in full sun or semi-shade. Aronia berries like semi-shade. There are so many kinds. If you only have shade or semi-shade there are many you can still use but you may want to do some research or have preferences. Food forests don’t have to have all canopy tree coverage which blocks the light. I have seen many which only have dwarf trees which let plenty of light in between the trees. It’s all in how it’s designed. If you have dense canopy forest, and you want a food forest, you will have to loose some of the canopy trees to get everything you want. Hope that helps.

  4. Melanie Stephens says:

    Good morning Garden Lady !!

    I live in Auburn Ga ☺️ on 1.66 acres, 11 years now and have been working hard to rebuild my soil as well retaining it’s past glory. My house is over 150 years old and I have pecans, scuppernong, figs and I add annually the best non Monsanto gmo perennial crops as I build the soil requirements. I will be adding a Bay Nobellis Laurel this year and found you in search of advice on container or in ground planting of this new member to our richly organic homestead. I would love to meet you and share failures and successes. Tenacity is my middle name and protecting our life giving earth’s natural balance my lifetime goal.


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