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URBAN GARDENING: Planning your winter garden

Winter vegetable seeds.
Starting your winter garden seeds in small pots saves garden space and allows for more efficient watering. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

June 21 marked the longest day of the year, with a sunset at 9:22 pm in Vancouver. It feels as if our current hot weather could last forever. But six months from now, it will be dark by 4:17 pm and the days will be cold and drizzly.

Winter is coming

By growing food year-round — not just in the spring and summer — we can significantly increase our food resiliency. Winter gardening is the practice of sowing your seeds in time to be full-size by mid-autumn, so that during the late fall and winter you have a “living refrigerator” that will ideally provide sustenance until the beginning of spring.

The catch is that we need to start our winter gardens at the height of summer.

This weekend, I took some time to review my garden plan and make sure I was on track for our winter garden. Last year, we grew a winter garden that included kale, parsley, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, beets, radishes and assorted greens. It kept us fed until the holiday season, but there was a gap from January to March where we had to supplement our diet with store-bought produce. This year, I’m planning to improve on our winter garden and hopefully achieve something closer to year-round sustenance.

Winter gardening is more challenging than spring gardening

Because crops grow so slowly in the winter, you need more time and space than you do with a spring garden. However, once fall rolls around, your winter garden becomes very low maintenance, with little need for watering, few pests or weeds, and a forgivingly long harvest window.

The rewards of winter gardening are immense. Cold weather enhances the flavour of most crops, turning peppery arugula into a mild, nutty delight and carrots into a sweet delicacy unlike anything else.

Winter gardening allows us to discover flavourful, colourful treats that can’t be found in stores, from frost-sweetened beets to purple sprouting broccoli to the delicate but unkillable miniature green known alternately as mache, lamb’s lettuce or corn salad.

Winter gardening can potentially save you a lot of money, as many favourite winter vegetables, like parsnips and leeks, are quite expensive.

And winter gardening truly increases our food resiliency at a time of year when most produce comes from even farther away and when many CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and farmer’s markets don’t operate.

If you’ve already been gardening for a year or two and want to take things to the next level, winter gardening is truly a great thing to experiment with.

Late June to mid-July is the ideal time to start a winter garden in Vancouver. Here are my recommendations for getting off to a great start:

Choose the right varieties

With the exception of tomatoes and a few other warm-weather crops, you can grow almost anything in the winter. Parsley, parsnips, lettuce, beets and cilantro are some of my favourites. 

Kale is a classic winter crop, but my “lacinato” plants were killed last year after just one night at  minus 5 celsius. I should have known — lacinato originates from the warm climate of Italy, unlike curly Scotch kales.

This year, I’ll be growing cold-tolerant ‘winterbor’ for my winter kale. If you browse through a seed catalogue, you’ll see that many crops include varieties that are recommended for the winter garden.

As a very rough rule of thumb, it’s best to sow your winter garden seeds from late June to mid-July. Timing is important, so for detailed crop-by-crop information, get ahold of a good seed catalogue with local date information.

Start your winter plants in pots

I prefer to sow most of my winter seeds in small pots, rather than directly in the garden beds. This is partly because my garden is incredibly full at this time of year and I just don’t have the space for winter crops, and partly because it can be difficult for seeds to germinate in our current hot weather. Sowing in pots gives me the control to water efficiently and to keep everything in a cool, protected spot. By the time I pull out my summer crops, the winter ones will be ready for transplanting.

Get ready to protect your beds

Once the weather starts to cool off, I’ll be covering my beds of delicate greens with ‘low tunnels’ made from clear plastic sheeting. These tent-like structures act like mini greenhouses, increasing the temperature inside and offering protection from hail, hard rain and wind. In the meantime, our beds are fitted year-round with arches made from PVC piping that will provide structure for the tunnels. The supplies can be found inexpensively at any hardware store.

Save excess spring crops

Last week, I wrote about ways to preserve your harvest during the bumper crop days of summer. This is, in fact, an important part of winter gardening. The greens that just went into our freezer will be an key part of our diet in the winter.

Gardening is all about patience and long-term planning. Because plants grow so slowly during the winter, we need to give many crops six months or longer to be ready in time for December, January or February. It may seem strange to be thinking about winter gardening in June, but  when you pull a big bunch of parsley and kale from under your low tunnels, you’ll be glad you did.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at

Kale in the urban vegetable garden.

Our rainbow lacinato kale is beautiful and productive, but it doesn’t take kindly to hard frosts. I’ll be planting some winterbor seeds in July for a true winter kale.

Low tunnel structures in the urban vegetable garden.

Once the weather cools down, I’ll drape clear plastic sheeting over these hoops to create a warmer microclimate within the beds.

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