How to Start a Winter Garden

Even with a lack of sunshine during this time of year, a backyard garden is not just for the summer, but for the winter too. With the right supplies and knowledge, planting a winter garden can be simple and rewarding.

Lori Ann David of Aurora Farms said, “Starting a garden gives you exercise, nutrition, self-reliance, first source organic nutrition at your fingertips, literally, all things good and whole in and with nature. It reduces stress, fosters community, builds self-esteem and confidence. It also improves memory, helps you sleep better, and provides incredible nutrition for your body. So many things!”

Henning Sehmsdorf, who resides on Lopez Island and has been farming for 50 years also advocates for the benefits of growing your own food.

“In 1957, I came to the U.S. from Germany and began working in a meat processing plant,” he said. “It was then that I decided I was either going to go vegetarian or grow my own food.”

What Sehmsdorf saw in the meatpacking plant changed how he ate forever. He witnessed the addition of oils and other fillers to the meat so the plant got more for its dime, along with the cruel treatment of the animals. It moved him enough that he has still kept that promise to himself 63 years later.

Sehmsdorf moved to Lopez Island in 1970 with the intent of growing food for himself and his family, he said. He has consistently reached that goal ever since as his farm allows him to be 100% self-reliant. He grows his own vegetables, fruit, makes his own bread, cheese, milks his own cows, and utilizes meat from his own livestock.

Not only is Sehmsdorf’s sharpness for his 85-year-old-self proof of the benefits of his clean living, but he shared an account of the experience his sister-in-law had as well when she came to live on Sehmsdorf’s farm. On arrival she brought with her a box full of prescriptions, he said.

“By the time she had been here for a while, eating our food, she was able to get off of all her pills,” Sehmsdorf accounted.

Sehmsdorf has spent a long time cultivating his craft, so don’t expect for it to be a breeze after starting the first garden, but he also urges to not get discouraged.

Now is a good time- and one of the last chances this season- to directly seed crops or transplant.

Alice Deane, a master gardener who helps to grow produce for the Friday Harbor Food Bank said she highly recommends investing in a hoop house, which is simpler and cheaper than a greenhouse. When the weather starts to cool down, a hoop house can be utilized to transplant outdoor crops into the hoop house.

“Going into November, I’m still growing tomatoes from the summer in my hoop house,” said Deane.

David said tried and true winter crops include spinach, carrots, chard, kale, komatsuna, mustards, tatsoi, mibuna, mizuna, pac, bok choys, Italian parsley, and beets.

Escarole and endive will also grow in cooler temps, and you can help them stay protected with a floating row cover called remay, she said. Broccoli can also be grown as its leaves are the most nutritious part and will grow all winter long.

The hardest to grow are root crops, as the soil needs the correct nutrients and correct soil profile to get good formation.

Herbs still growing from the summer to keep an eye out for include chives, sage, loveage, summer savory, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, cilantro, oregano, and dill. There are also several types of edible flowers available including calendula, borage, nasturtium, and chrysanthemums. They all produce very good healing properties, she said. Many of these herbs can also successfully be grown in pots inside during the winter.

If you are growing outside in a non-protected garden bed, David said to make sure to mulch with heavy leaves, well-composted hay, or straw without weed seeds. Doing so will insulate and protect the garden as well as add nutrients to the soil as they break down.

She also explained that a crucial task for a winter garden is to make sure to turn off your irrigation and make sure there isn’t any standing water in your garden.

One of the most important aspects of gardening is to pay attention to the weather, moon cycles, Farmer’s Almanac, winds, and local topography.

While the frost hasn’t quite hit yet, now is the time that David is preparing her garden for frost.

“We as farmers and gardeners are always watching the weather, actually, more like calculating what we need to do,” she said. “You learn to read all sorts of signs.”

One such sign David takes note of is watching out for a September full moon, as she said that after that, the weather starts to take a turn. She said with each full moon after that, the weather gets colder.

A full moon she calls the “big one” marking a major shift in frost is occurring on Nov. 19. “It’s happening SOON,” she exclaimed.

This marks the time to harvest all the plants leftover from summer, cutting back perennial flowers, and covering outside greens such as lettuce, arugula, broccoli, and kale with a floating row cover to keep the cold off and keep moist heat in.

Cool-weather crops such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots, many salad greens, Brussels sprouts, leeks, beets, turnips, scallions, parsley, cilantro, and spinach can withstand some frost, she said. Some will be quite hardy and will survive temperatures well below freezing; others can be damaged by temperatures below 30°F.

As long as a winter garden is well-attended it can last until early spring, she said. When this time approaches, she recommends getting started on a spring and summer garden and planting disease-resistant pea varieties for the early spring mulch.

To assist in starting and maintaining a garden year-round books that Shemsdorf recommended are Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and the Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman.

“Be patient-things grow slower- plant what you will eat-skip the rest,” David said. “Don’t forget to close the garden gates-deer are hunting about! Pay attention, work in the garden every day, eat healthy food, and have fun!”