It seems many a gardener spends the winter locked up inside, hiding from the chilly weather, darning socks in front of the cookstove, the gardens tucked in with mulch and awaiting the spring. But, that’s no way to be when there is a large collection of plants that adore a little frost tickling their leaves. Many plants willing to brave freezing temperatures if given the right encouragement.
In short, a good lot of us could be growing a good lot of fresh food year-round, no greenhouse necessary.
Just for fun, and because our fall garden is kicking out the good stuff so far this year, and because a few holdovers from the summer are still producing in mid-November, it felt like an appropriate time to revisit some of those plants that not only endure cold weather but improve with it.
Equally so, it’s worth remembering that, with a few tricks here and there, we can coax some of those summer gems to extend their output for a month or more.
Plants That Improve With Frost
Around these parts (North Carolina), it is well known and widely accepted that collard greens are notably and inarguably better after a frost. Though a bit more tolerant of heat than, say, kale (they will grow in the summertime), collards are planted in late summer all the same, and gardeners in the know wait to harvest any until after a good frost slaps the bitter taste away.
Last year, a mild winter, Emma and I played pick-and-eat with collards over the entire season. We let them go to seed in spring and replant themselves. This year we are extending the options. We’ve done the same with mustard greens. Chard, a biennial, survived a pest-ridden summer, to come out on this end with nice luscious leaves for us to enjoy. Though they don’t improve with frosts, we also have some nice lettuce varieties providing delicious: buttercrunch (self-seeded from the spring garden) and Cherokee (a heat-tolerant variety that rocked it all summer).
Beets, which have both delicious leaves and roots, are on the go, a fresh planting at the beginning of autumn. At the end of last winter, I harvested a bunch carrots leftover in a client’s garden and enjoyed them so much, that we’ve left this year’s harvest in the soil for a bit of cold to send sweetness down to the root. As long as the greens are still vibrant, we’ll just harvest them as needed.
Though not yet on our growing list, lots of other vegetables improve with frosts. It’s not just leafy greens, though cabbages of all sorts—don’t forget Brussels sprouts!— do markedly improve with frosts. Several root vegetables—parsnips, celeriac, turnips, and rutabagas—don’t hit their prime until they’ve shivered for a night or two. Suddenly, they started talking/tasting sweeter. Leeks also make the list, as does spinach.
And, make no mistake here. This list is simply those vegetables that notably improve with frost. The fall/winter garden has much more on the menu: broccoli, radishes, parsley, mache, claytonia, bok choy, arugula, kohlrabi, peas, oregano, thyme, mint, rosemary, sage, cauliflower, radicchio, celery, tatsoi…that’s a lot of fresh food occupying the growing space. And, the entire list can endure temperatures that dip below freezing.
For whatever diversity we might be celebrating in summer’s kitchen garden, we’ve just concocted a list of two dozen or more vegetables of varying colours, shapes, textures, and flavours that we (at least those of us not in the coldest of cold places) could be enjoying into and often through the winter, fresh from the garden.
Even better, the weeds (many of which are delicious: spring cress, chickweed, lambsquarter, sorrel…) and pests are kept at bay by the low temperatures, so our job as harvesters is much less competitive.
Protecting Plants That Don’t Like Frost
As for the summer flavours, cukes and squashes waved goodbye a couple months ago, and by that time, it was a welcome parting (for now). We’ve long since pulled the plug on our tomatoes, relishing (quite culinarily speaking) the remaining green tomatoes as pickles and chutney and a late blush of ripening, slightly less juicy, red slicing tomatoes. Our okra plants held out a little longer until they finally gave way and just stood there with buds unwilling to bloom. And, our peppers are still killing it!
No doubt, a lot of our favourite and most familiar flavours are not great fans of frosts. Like many homesteaders, foodies, and environmentalists, Emma and I don’t buy tomatoes and squashes out of season. We don’t want the chemicals on our conscious. We don’t the food miles weighing heavy on our minds. Equally so, we want these foods when they taste like tomatoes and squashes, not hothouse versions of themselves.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that a little ingenuity can provide longer harvests of many vegetables, particularly those that are perennials—tomatoes, peppers, and okra—in their native tropics. Here are some considerations for getting more life, more importantly more fruit, from plants that don’t like frosts.
- Put them in a good spot. A plant on a sun-facing slope with a little shelter, such as a building or hedge, on the opposite to protect them from the cold winds will survive longer. If a pond or body water is nearby, all the better.
- Humidity helps. More moisture in the air means that the dew point will be higher, preventing frost from forming as readily.
- Closely spaced plants will help protect one another from frosts. It might be worth considering interplanting those waning summer plants with the up-and-coming fall crops. They can all cuddle as they change shifts.
- Shelter from the storm. Watching the weather can make a big difference. Often there will be a couple of cold days early on with weeks to go before the colder season actually takes hold. A sheet or simple covering—newspaper, straw, tarp, etc.—for a couple of nights could mean a dozen more of something delicious before waving goodbye to it until next year.
Fresh vegetables in late fall are a wonderful thing. Knocking a light snow off a recent harvest sometimes makes it taste all the better. It’s as if you’ve beat the odds when, really, it’s nothing more than common sense gardening.