Brighten Your Winter with a Vegetable Garden

Raised beds help increase warmth and decrease sogginess in your winter vegetable garden.By Diana Roll

Growing vegetables in the winter might sound unlikely in steel-gray, sunless, soggy Seattle. But our mild maritime climate means we can actually do what those poor souls in the frozen Midwest and other parts of the country can’t—grow, harvest, and enjoy fresh vegetables all winter long. What could be better? Especially in this era of newly awakened interest in food that is grown organically and close to home, it’s hard to beat harvesting food from our own yards. Talk about farm to table! Can you picture proudly serving roasted beets, sauteed Brussels sprouts, and colorful chard at your table—all delicious, all chock full of nutrients, all organic—and all picked just minutes ago from your winter vegetable garden?

If you can’t quite imagine it—or even if you can—read on. By the last word, you may be picturing at least one or two vegetables you might just try growing next winter.

The first step on this journey is to create your garden beds. Your veggies will do best in a drier part of your yard with as much sunlight as possible. Many people have found that locating their garden at the south side of the house helps a lot—any sun and warmth is increased by bouncing off that wall onto the garden. Raised beds are pretty much a necessity to keep your garden warmer and less waterlogged. These don’t have to be fancy—one approach is to till your garden area, decide where you want paths and where you want beds, and simply heap dirt from your path area into raised beds. You can mix in some bags of compost for a richer nutrient base for your plants.

Cheery red chard looks great in the garden and tastes even better on your plate.
The second step is deciding what to plant. Some vegetables may not survive the coldest weather and will need to be harvested before the first heavy frost, usually early to mid November in Seattle. (However, if you get hooked on a winter garden, you can easily extend your growing season by using row covers, cloches, and other methods of protecting your plants.) Others can not only survive a frost, but are enhanced by it—the frost concentrates the sugars in, for example, Brussels sprouts or cabbage, and makes them all the sweeter and tastier. Since many vegetables will need to be planted in July to have enough growing time before winter frosts, planning your winter vegetable garden in early July is a good idea. Here are some popular, easy-to-grow vegetables to consider:

Beets: sow in early July for harvest all winter long; mulching will help keep beets survive even in heavy freezes.
A seed packet of mixed lettuce varieties can give you a lovely basis for a healthy salad.Brussels sprouts: sow in early June for harvest in late fall and winter; taste improves with successive frosts!

Cabbage: sow in June and July for late fall and winter harvest; like Brussels sprouts, successive frosts improve taste, but a hard freeze may kill cabbage.

Carrots: sow May through July for harvest through fall and winter; once they have reached maturity, you can store the carrots right in the ground for winter-long access by cutting off the green tops and applying mulch.

Chard: sow July through early August; pick leaves as they mature to keep the plant going through the first hard frost; some winter varieties (check seed packet) can be sown later in the fall to overwinter for early spring harvest.

Lettuce: sow in August and September for harvest before the first hard frost; look for “salad mix” seed packets to have a variety of lettuce in a small space.

Unfortunately, snails and slugs don't disappear when summer does, as the nibbles out of this spinach show.
Salad greens (such as mustard, endive, and Asian greens): like chard, can be sown in summer for fall harvest, or winter varieties can be sown later in the fall for overwintering.

(If your favorite winter vegetable isn’t listed here—or if you’d like to see what else you can try—check out this planting calendar from the Seattle Times.)

The third step in this process? Following through on your plan. Plant your seeds at the appropriate time in summer, then you need water and weed only until the fall rains start (a big advantage of a winter garden!). As your garden takes shape, keep those rain boots and a bowl or basket handy for gathering your winter harvest—and try not to be too smug as you place those delicious just-picked vegetables in front of your dinner guests.

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