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Winter Gardening

Veggies for the Pot, Bounty for the Birds

With the right support, plants in the hardy brassica family, like kale, can flourish in winter.   ©TanteLoe/Pixabay
With the right support, plants in the hardy brassica family, like kale, can flourish in winter. ©TanteLoe/Pixabay

There is no more satisfying time for a gardener than harvest time. Bringing in homegrown pumpkins, squash, apples, and leafy greens are all part of what makes autumn such a delectable season.

For many gardeners, all the fun stops when the first frosts start flattening summer plants and turning them into wizened stalks.

Luckily, there are a few strategies that gardeners can use to extend the season through the dark and snowy months.

Winter Vegetable Gardening

Winter vegetable gardening in a northern climate can be tricky, but, with a little creativity, it is still possible to grow some plants right through the winter. Many vegetables can be coaxed into a few extra weeks of life with a little intervention.

Row cover fabric.   ©Rasbak/Wikimedia
Row cover with hoops. ©Rasbak/Wikimedia

Kale, cabbage and other greens in the brassica family can be preserved with row cover. This is a light, reusable fabric (available at most garden shops) that is loosely placed over crops to protect them from frost and keep them fresh until ready for harvest. Gardeners can also use row cover hoops to float the row cover over taller crops, like kale and leeks, or protect root crops, like carrots and turnips, from snow.

Row cover with hoops.   ©Wikimedia
Row cover fabric. ©Wikimedia

As fall turns to winter, the low light and cold temperatures cause many plants to stop or slow their growth. A cold frame will help extend the growing season for some plants. (There are many online resources for building a cold frame with recycled materials.)

A cold frame with solid sides and clear glass or plastic top can create a little haven of spring when placed in a sunny location. Many herbs and salad greens, including arugula, spinach, and some lettuces, thrive when grown in a cold frame. Just a few parsley or chive plants protected from cold and snow by a cold frame—or miniature, bell-shaped cold frames called “cloches”—will brighten up a winter soup or plate of pasta.

A bell-shaped “cloche” (left) and mini-greenhouses (right).   ©Steve F/Wikimedia
A bell-shaped “cloche” (left) and mini-greenhouses (right). ©Steve F/Wikimedia

A traditional homemade cold frame.   ©Moormand/Wikimedia
A traditional homemade cold frame. ©Moormand/Wikimedia

For best results, growers should make sure they keep the top of the cold frame free of snow, so plenty of light can get to the winter garden. When it’s time to enjoy winter vegetables, wait until the temperature inside the cold frame is well above freezing before harvesting.

Winter Gardening For Wildlife

The end of summer—and its abundant bounty of flowering plants—can feel like the end of the season for bees and other pollinators. But there are still many ways gardeners can help pollinators through the dormant months.

As tempting as it is to keep yards and gardens tidy and free of leaf litter, a pile of freshly fallen leaves is a haven for many beneficial insects. Instead of removing the leaves from a garden or yard, it’s good to find a corner where the leaves can stay undisturbed for the winter or mulched into bare areas to protect the soil.

Pollinators will also appreciate undisturbed piles of logs. Butterflies and moths will snuggle themselves under tiny crevices in loose bark. Many species of bees will either create or use preexisting holes in old wood for shelter in the winter. Native bees also appreciate the straw-like hollow stems of plants. It’s easy to create more bee habitat— simply clip off the heads of plants with hollow stems and leave their stalks to winter over. Many perennial plants have hollow stems, including Bee balm (monarda).

Crocuses in late winter.   ©Thomas Wolf/Wikimedia
Crocuses in late winter. ©Thomas Wolf/Wikimedia

Leaving the garden a little untidy is one of the best ways to create winter habitat for bees, butterflies, birds, and small mammals. But if one’s goal is to both add some color to the coming spring display and help pollinators, one of the nicest ways to extend the season is to plant some early flowering bulbs.

Crocuses can start blooming in late winter and can be planted in flower beds, pots, or in the lawn. To plant crocuses in a lawn, cut the grass short, and then toss a few crocus bulbs at random in the planting area to create a natural display. Use a bulb planter (an old apple corer will work in a pinch) to make small holes to plant the bulbs wherever they land. Cover the holes with displaced turf, and in the spring, check the distinctive, colorful flowers for bees rollicking in the yellow pollen. Let the grass grow long before mowing in the spring, and crocuses will make a repeat seasonal appearance.

Overwintering birds can also benefit from a little careful planning and planting. Many birds—including eastern bluebirds and robinsthat have an insect-based diet in the summertime need to sustain themselves with fruits and berries in winter. Many species of crabapple will hold on to their bountiful fruit through the winter, providing food for birds. Then, in the spring, these lovely trees reward the gardener with a stunning display of apple blossoms (a good early source of food for pollinators).

Waxwing feeding on berries of a rowan tree branch.  ©Rvo233
Waxwing feeding on berries of a rowan tree branch. ©Rvo233

Planting different kinds of berry-bearing trees and shrubs can add wonderful winter interest to a garden, and also be a lifesaver for hungry birds. Shrubs in the genus ilex, which includes holly and winterberry, provide both food and shelter to wildlife, as well as give a cheery glow to a winter landscape. Many garden centers get fresh stock of these plants in late fall around the holidays. If a new shrub can’t be planted before the ground freezes, consider using it in a winter container display with wintergreen and other hardy berry-bearing plants. One’s container garden will look wonderful right through to spring with minimal care.

Wintergreen in Pennsylvania (US) in December.   ©Bramblehillshaman/Wikimedia
Wintergreen in Pennsylvania (US) in December. ©Bramblehillshaman/Wikimedia

There are many ways to add beauty and bounty to a winter garden. It’s always worth keeping that good feeling of fostering growth and providing habitat through the cold days until the soil warms and buds begin to break again. With just a few additions and a little planning, both gardeners and their gardens’ residents can more easily weather the colder months.

Enjoy!   ©UBodnar/Pixabay
Enjoy! ©UBodnar/Pixabay

*Mal Cole is a freelance science and nature writer based in Massachusetts.


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