After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

What happens when you plant seeds in November?

The seeds we planted last November survived a frost without complaint. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

Gardening is all about curiosity and creative exploration. Sometimes, I try things that break all the rules, just because it’s fun and interesting. Like planting seeds in November.

Last fall, I pulled out our tomato plants and was confronted with an empty garden bed. The “normal” options were to either throw some mulch on it – I’ve been known to “nicely” rake our neighbours’ lawns without telling them in order to save up enough leaves – or plant a cover crop. But I felt a desire to do something more adventurous with the four-foot-by-eight-foot space. Our garden is small and I wanted every square inch to be devoted to vegetable production.

On a whim, I grabbed my box of seeds and asked myself what might survive being planted in November. Tomatoes and corn were out of the question, but the big bag of romaine lettuce I bought from Tosi seemed like it might qualify, even though the seeds are from Italy. Same with the cilantro seeds I save from our plants each year, and the extra packets of pea and scallion seeds I had left over from the spring.

I went outside on a cold and drizzly November day and sowed the seeds. I covered them securely with a clear plastic row cover, with holes slashed in it for air flow. What happened was fascinating. To my delight, the seeds sprouted within a couple of weeks. Then we were hit with a sudden dry frost that injured even my toughest kale plants. Everything in our garden was damaged except for the November-planted  seedlings. They were completely fine, something that I now attribute to the tiny surface area of their leaves, which left little opportunity for frostbite. Next came the snow, arriving near the end of November. Our seedlings braved this happily, staying snug and healthy under their row cover. They had stopped growing but were perfectly fine.

December and January came and went with the seeds in a state of suspended animation. They stopped growing but were otherwise fine. Along the way, we lost most of our pea plants to a hungry rodent. A weird, fuzzy fungus wiped out a small patch of lettuce, but didn’t spread. By the beginning of February, The seedlings were growing again and quickly developed their “adult” leaves. We were eating baby lettuce salads by the first of March, when most gardeners are just starting to plant their first seeds.

Planting seeds in November should always be considered an experiment. You might get great results, and you might get nothing. For me, the outcome of having fresh lettuce on the first of March was well worth it. It was also fascinating to watch how the plants germinated, stopped growing and then grew again as the cycles of daylight and temperature changed. Going into the experiment, I had a lot of questions: would anything survive? Would the plants bolt (go to flower) immediately?

Plants are tough. They can survive a bit of adversity, and even thrive on it: some crops, like spinach, are actually more likely to sprout when they’re endured freezing temperatures. For those who are afraid to start gardening because they’ve labelled themselves as “plant killers”, I encourage you to just try sowing some seeds without any expectation of the outcome. With just some soil, light and water, the plants will do most of the work for you.

Planting seeds in November: recommendations

  • Choose cold-hardy crops. Romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, mustards, cilantro, peas and radishes work well.
  • Sow the seeds thickly. Normally, I encourage people to not sow their seeds too close together. But at this time of year, you’ll want a denser planting so that you can eat early spring thinnings. Sow the seeds about three times more thickly than you would normally, and harvest the thinnings as soon as they get their adult leaves.
  • Protect them from urban wildlife. Hungry rodents will come for your pea shoots. Use chicken wire to try to keep them out.
  • Use a row cover. Clear plastic sheeting is my preferred choice for winter row covers. Leave a one-inch gap near the soil line, and slash some holes throughout, to ensure adequate airflow.
  • Remember that it’s an experiment. Let go of expectation and just see what happens!

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. Join her on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00pm for Fabulous Urban Gardens on “Home” with host Jana Lynne White. She blogs about urban food gardening at

Even under late November snow, our seedlings (shown here on November 28, 2014 behind overwintered carrots) did just fine. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

By the beginning of February, the seedlings had started to develop their “adult” leaves. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

On the first day of March, we started to thin out our November-planted baby lettuce for the fresh salads. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

In late March, when most people were planting their very first seeds, we had plenty of greens to eat. Planting seeds in November paid off! Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

More in Life

UX designers shape our interaction with the environment through technology

When George Papazian began teaching at Emily Carr University of Art + Design a few years ago, the term UX designer was still relatively new. Now, he is the lead instructor for the interaction design...

Take a vacation, save the planet

Green, eco and sustainable travel are growing six times faster than traditional travel.

Bread and butter pudding: warming comfort food

A great way to use leftover bread
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.