A Winter Gardening Bed

In a relatively small amount of space, home gardeners can create a vegetable garden productive enough to provide delicious sides or even main courses during our winters in Central Texas. Year-round gardening is an excellent means of sustainability and self-sufficiency through food production, and expert guides, such as “Four-Season Harvest” by the inimitable Eliot Coleman, prove that even the frigid northernmost regions of the United States can produce garden-fresh ingredients in every season, provided they receive enough sunshine. We here in comfortable Zone 8 don’t even require heat retention of any kind for our beds to provide us with plenty of greens, roots and ingredients to store (think: hard-shell squash, onions, garlic) throughout the “cold” season. And luckily, local home and garden retail shops and boutiques have raised-garden-bed kits and specialty soil blends to make setting up a complete winter garden easy and possible for less than $50. For my winter bed, I used a pre-made kit for a simple 3.5 x 3.5 square-foot plot.

Keep in mind that vegetable varieties mature at different times; one seed strain may take weeks or a month longer than others to grow. And it’s wise to research varieties for disease- and pest-resistance according to your region. For the location of your plot, choose one that receives full sun, preferably with a northern windbreak either from a fence or a wall. Compost that is fully decomposed can be blended into soil during crop rotation at a rate of 1 square inch spread evenly across the top and then forked in. I also recommend mulching with straw, grass clippings (kept well away from the stems of sensitive vegetables) or leaf litter.

Planting for all seeds and seedlings takes place between September and November or January and March. Remember that raised beds warm faster than in-ground gardens, but they also have less insulation to withstand chill. If we receive especially hard early or late frosts, cover the bed with a sheet at night to protect any tender buds. If you’re feeling extra DIY, you can also build an inexpensive frame cover for the bed. Insect netting can be useful as temperatures warm up in early spring for pests like carrot flies, and a ring of sand or grit around the base of slug- and snail-prone greens can help protect the harvest.

I divided my winter garden bed into nine quadrants by pinning (or taping or nailing) string or twine crosswise on the top of the sides. Each quadrant in the grid holds one of the following, either in seed or transplant form:

Green or purple fall/winter cabbage—1 plant. The number of cabbage varieties (and planting/harvesting times) are nearly endless! They fall mainly into two groups: summer/fall and winter/spring cabbages. The main head is harvested when ripe, but they will continue to put out loose spring leaves for later harvests. Some varieties grow more quickly than others, so diligence in research is recommended.

Radishes—36 seeds total, sown 2 inches apart. Radishes are sown throughout the year and harvested as needed. Sow a row or two at a time in weekly intervals and check for readiness at three weeks from seeding.

Collards—1 plant. In Central Texas, sow transplants in January/February or September/October.

Beets—48 seeds total, sown 1.5 inches apart (thin to 3 inches apart as needed)

Carrots—36 seeds total, sown 2 inches apart. Beets and carrots can be planted in winter and harvested young or mature. (Plant in rotation for harvest at regular intervals.) 

Microgreens—250 seeds total per square foot. These can be seeded in small amounts so that you have a regular production of fresh microgreens.

Garlic—4 plants. Garlic is planted in fall and winter and harvested at the end of winter and during spring season, but you can use the greens for garnish and flavor throughout the growing season.

White onions—36 plants total, sown 2 inches apart. Onions, of the same family as garlic, can be planted in fall and winter, and are harvested in spring and summer. Their greens are useful throughout the growing season, and they can be harvested young for aesthetics and variation in flavor.

Basil—1 plant. Basil can be harvested on an ongoing basis and extras can be frozen, prepared and stored, or dried. Basil is particularly sensitive to cold weather, however, so be mindful to cover the plant if temperatures dip into the 40s.

Now that all the hard work has been done, consider these culinary ideas to enjoy your cool-weather harvest!

By Sarah J. Nielsen • Illustration by Cathy Matusicky