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Extreme Winter Vegetable Gardening - Can you Garden at Subzero Temperatures in Deep Snow?

By Edited Jun 3, 2015 10 27

Can you Garden at Subzero Temperatures in the Snow?

Unless you have a greenhouse, extreme winter gardening in Ontario involves harvesting slow-growing vegetables.  Nothing new is planted here after September except garlic which will be ready sometime in the heat of the following summer. 

All our winter gardening discoveries have evolved from procrastination, laziness and wanting to feed our chickens fresh free organic greens in the dead of winter.  And planting leeks and Brussels’ sprouts in July will not get you a yield before the first frost. 

It is possible to plant a second crop of potatoes in July that can be harvested around the time of the killing frost, sometime in October.  Last year was a warm autumn and we harvested potatoes in early November.  The potatoes are quite susceptible to frost, and once the ground freezes around them, they are never the same again, so aim to let them grow as long as possible before the hard frost.

Choose the Right Vegetables

Vegetables still edible after being excavated from under 2 feet of snow include; curly kale, Brussels’ sprouts, leeks and celeriac.  Nearly all are vegetables that have interminable “days to harvest” on the packet and are a great size by then.  The vegetables do continue to grow in the fall when temperatures rise above freezing during the day.

Cabbages can be successfully grown into the winter, but much past December, the tight headed cabbages go soft inside under the snow.  It seems the open-leaved brassicas like kale do the best when insulated by snow.  Leeks and celeriac are still good to harvest after the snow is gone, though the brassicas are done by then. There are other perennial vegetable and fruits worth growing that are ready in early spring.

I have read that root vegetables such as carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips can be harvested into the winter after the first frosts.  Maybe in milder climes, but with the soil freezing solid here in Zone 5, harvest is physically impossible in the winter.  By spring, those veggies are soft and bendy and not very appealing.

Most of the vegetables grown over the winter are great for making soups and other dishes where texture is not such an issue, but it’s nice to know they are still in good condition.

Any vegetables that disintegrate when  frosted are obviously not suitable.  Check out the seed companies for the best varieties and more vegetable ideas to try.

Winter Vegetable Gardening - Harvesting Brussel Sprouts on Christmas Day

Winter Vegetable Gardening - Harvesting Brussel Sprouts on Christmas Day
Credit: Skeffling Lavender Farm

Herbs that can be Winter Harvested

Rosemary and basil are gone with the first frost, so bring them in to before then.  Parsley, sage, oregano, and chives are fine as long as they are not too dried out in the wind.  We prefer to dry those herbs in the summer, but the odd winter culinary emergency has called for them in the past and they were great. 

Tips for Winter Vegetable Gardening

  • Allow the snow to surround your vegetables completely.  The temperature around your vegetables won’t drop much below 0oC or 32oF. 
  • Place markers or posts where you’re vegetables are-ideally one in each corner of the bed.  It may sound basic, but I have been there, looking for cabbages in 3 feet of snow, knowing ‘they must be round here somewhere’
  • Go dressed for harvesting. Insulated gloves and insulated coveralls and boots will stop you getting chilled. Digging for vegetables in the snow really involves digging by hand.  Using a shovel may damage more vegetables that you want to harvest. 
  • Making a hot, tasty, home-made soup with your buried treasure makes it all worthwhile.  Even if the neighbours think you are crazy!

Growing slow-growing vegetables can take up valuable space in the height of summer. Often they can be planted after early cropping lettuces, spinach, radishes, and peas are done. 

It is worth giving winter gardening a try if you love harvesting your veggie garden and need a hunting and gathering fix in the short days of winter.

Leeks Overwintered, Harvested all Winter and Some Left in the Spring.

Leeks Overwintered and not yet harvested in the Spring.
Credit: Skeffling Lavender Farm
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Comments

Sep 11, 2011 1:48am
JudyE
This was really interesting! We get about five days of frost a year - if we're unlucky! - and no snow ever! This seems like growing vegetables under very difficult conditions.
Sep 11, 2011 6:20am
skeffling
Thanks JudyE. You must be able to grow an amazing array of plants there! It is like 2 worlds here. Nice long hot in the summer for proper gardening, then from Mid Nov to some time in March we usually have 2-3 feet of snow on the ground. We live on the Bruce Peninsula which sticks out into Lake Huron so we get squalls dumping lots of snow.

Emigrating from England 20 years ago, the snow is still a novelty and doesn't bother me at all. There`s nothing like getting cosy after you've been out in it, and snow days, unexpected days off work...awesome! The gardening is just stubbornness just to see what was possible.
Sep 11, 2011 3:55pm
Catherine_Daly
Great article. I just planted out some leeks today- hope I haven't left them too late. There's nothing like homemade leek and potatoe soup on a cold winter's night!
Sep 11, 2011 9:34pm
skeffling
Thanks Catherine. It'd be too late for here, but depends where you are. Hopefully they'll grow well.
I totally agree with you on the soup! I love leek and potato soup (I always add some Stilton too and nutmeg), or celeriac and potato is great too!
Oct 12, 2011 2:35am
noryanna
Excellent article
Oct 12, 2011 6:22am
southerngirl09
Congratulations on the Featured Article! Very interesting article on winter gardening, and great pictures, too. How exciting to be able to harvest fresh Brussel sprouts on Christmas day. Thanks for sharing.
Oct 12, 2011 9:07am
landocheese
What a fun article to read. Thanks for sharing! I just had to clear out my community garden plot this week so they can shut it down - way too early as I had plenty still going on. Maybe in my home garden I will try something for winter next year.
Oct 12, 2011 10:46am
skeffling
Thanks for reading and commenting Noryanna, Southerngirl09 and Landocheese. I am excited and honored, this is my first featured article! I can't imagine how we got pictures, but we had them in the "archives"!

That's a shame Landocheese, we still have tomatoes, beans, carrots, and peppers growing, I bet there are still lots of other great veggies available. Some are tastier after a frost like the sprouts and parsnips. You should try it, you'll learn from any mistakes and have still fun doing it!
Oct 12, 2011 12:27pm
marcel
very interesting.
Oct 12, 2011 2:52pm
istasak49
This article caught my eye this morning because it's so relevant to my life in Alaska! I'm just harvesting the last of my garden (carrots and potatoes) but am missing the fresh greens already. Congratulations on a job well done!
Oct 12, 2011 5:15pm
LLWoodard
I had no idea that at least some vegetables would grow and be edible in places like Canada and Alaska. Thanks for the interesting read and best of luck with this winter's bounty.
Oct 12, 2011 6:38pm
Introspective
Congratulations on the feature, what an interesting topic!
Oct 12, 2011 8:36pm
skeffling
Thanks Marcel and Introspective, glad you enjoyed the topic.

Istasak, you probably have greater challenges than we do here, but under that snow it stays around zero, it's finding the bounty that is fun, like digging for potatoes! It's a shame it doesn't work for lettuce though...

LLwoodward, where there is a will, there's a way! We have awesome hot summers and 4-5 frost free months anyway to work with, so over the winter, anything we get is a bonus. One of these years we'll get a greenhouse set up and can broaden our winter veggie variety.
Oct 15, 2011 3:07pm
Ddraig
Snow is no longer a novelty in the UK Skeffling, well not up int t'North!!

I love vegetable gardening and my leeks stayed well over the deep snows here last year.

I did Brussel sprouts once, but the caterpillars had them.

I love this article, it is great that it got a feature.
Oct 16, 2011 7:04am
skeffling
Ddraig, I can't believe the winters you have been having there, the houses just aren't designed for it, or the people! Farmers aren't used to their livestock's water freezing and I imagine you can't just go out and buy snow shovels or snowblowers at the hardware store yet!

If you can find Diotomaceous earth (a brown or white dust made of crushed up fossilized diatoms), it is organic and will sort out caterpillars if sprinkled on brassicas. Leeks grow so slow, I never had them get as big as the ones you buy in the grocers until I let them go over the winter!

Multiman, it sounds beautiful where you live. I hope the harvest goes well this winter!
Oct 16, 2011 4:19pm
Deborah-Diane
Absolutely fascinating article. I always thought that, once it snowed, the garden was dead for the year. I had no idea there were crops you could still harvest. Very informative!
Oct 16, 2011 10:39pm
skeffling
Thanks Deborah-Diane! I used to think that too, especially here in Canada where it gets so cold. Then I thought, why not experiment? I'm glad I did, it looks like it may help a few people in snowy climes too!
Oct 23, 2011 12:16pm
Lynsuz
Really great article. Congratulations on feature. In Georgia, we can pretty much grow somethings all year.
Jan 5, 2012 8:50pm
skeffling
Thanks LynSuz. You have a wonderful climate done there! I am envious!
Dec 13, 2011 11:36pm
watercarrier
Making soup from your "buried treasure" sounds wonderful. We are in a much warmer clime on the Gulf of Mexico but enjoyed the article. Had to uproot basil and place in garage last week - it already showed sign of frost bite. The oregano will come back in the spring. The mint is still hardy and will come back. But I don't know about the pepper plants - probably will not come back.
Jan 5, 2012 8:53pm
skeffling
Thanks for commenting watercarrier. It is a wonderful soup! Just what you need when you have been crawling about in the snow feeling around for cold buried treasure! Yes peppers don't like the cold. You can usually kiss your beans good-bye too if they get a frost. You can always dry the basil if it does not thrive in the house while it is in relatively good shape.
Dec 30, 2011 11:23pm
astonerattnet
Winter gardening is really something I need to get better at, although improving my summer gardening wouldn't hurt either.

Several years ago I heard a very interesting technique they were using in Florida when it was going to drop below freezing to protect the strawberries. They were actually sprinkling the strawberry plants with water to get a layer of ice to cover the berries to keep them at 32 degrees while the air temp was lower. I'm guessing your vegetables buried under snow have the benefit of being insulated by the snow from the sub zero temps.

Thanks for the article.
Jan 5, 2012 8:59pm
skeffling
Thanks for commenting Astoerattnet! That sounds like it would totally work. I have less winter kill on my less hardy lavender (lavandin hybrids) when we have nice deep snow all winter. Nothing kills it quicker than a January thaw then no snow on it when it goes sub sub zero with no insulation.
Jul 25, 2012 6:08pm
icblues
Good article. I didn't know you can grow vegetables even in winter!
Jul 26, 2012 10:29am
hillloyd
Very cool article. (ouch)
Apr 3, 2013 4:48am
chbamey
I never knew you could overwinter leeks. I have been growing them here in Zone 3/4 for just a few years now, but never got them as big as the ones in the grocery store... definitely going to try this! Thanks for the article.
May 6, 2013 9:32pm
ebifav
nice one!
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