by Susan Berry
Many home gardeners in SE Massachusetts know that we can grow wonderful fall crops such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, beets, carrots, turnips, spinach and many more. But did you know that we can also plant in late fall/early winter for an early spring harvest?
After farming in North Carolina for 9 years and then returning to my home state of Massachusetts it took me quite a while to re-adjust to having only two growing seasons here. I had become used to three, nearly four growing seasons in NC. I decided after my first two years growing here, to push the limit and get three seasons out of two. After all, I may have lived in the south for ten years but I was born a Yankee and with that illustrious title comes ingenuity.
Winter sowing is simply a term used to describe the process of sowing seeds that can withstand or need a period of cold (stratification) in order to germinate. For avid gardeners like myself it also means growing more food and getting an early harvest.
A lettuce bed that was sown in late August can give us fall lettuce and spinach and then carry over under mulch until March.
In September sowing carrots, beets, kale, cabbage, spinach and other greens gives these veggies time to germinate and start growing. September is the ideal month to sow these vegetables since the soil and daytime air temps are still warm enough to germinate but evenings are starting to get cool, which cold weather crops love.
Sow your seeds as you would any other time during the growing season and keep moist until germination. You can amend your garden or raised beds with aged manure since the soil may be tired from growing the summer crops. After your veggies pop through and start growing, add mulch around them to help retain moisture and protect them from any early frosts.
The photo to the left shows cabbage seedlings that were sown in early September and were just forming heads in November. We had nicely sized cabbage to harvest in the first week of March.
As the days get colder and the evenings bring frost add mulch, making the bed deeper and higher covering the plants nearly completely. When the snow starts flying, the veggies should have mulch completely covering them to about 3-6 inches deep. My favorite mulch is dried fall leaves or straw. Sometimes if the winter is fairly mild the vegetables will continue to grow, only a bit slower and you can push aside the mulch and harvest some vegetables in the middle of winter.
Here are carrots that I had sown in September and harvested in January.
Another method of winter sowing is to sow seeds in early winter. Wait until temps are too cold for germination and plant growth but the soil is still workable to about 2 inches. Broccoli, spinach and brussels sprouts are some vegetables that this works very well with because their seeds have a hard shell. Sow these, planting as you would normally, then cover with mulch. In early spring when the soil warms a little they will germinate quickly giving you a much earlier harvest then you would get by sowing in spring.
These broccoli seedlings were sown in December. This photo was taken in mid-March.
Winter sowing can stretch out the growing season and provide us with early harvests of our favorite veggies. And for those of us who feel melancholy at the thought of putting our trowels, garden gloves and leftover seeds in the shed and closing the doors for three months, sowing seeds in early winter gives us a bit more anticipation of the coming spring when the days are warmer, brighter and tiny green seedlings poke their heads through the mulch. It never fails to make me smile.
Susan Berry is a Horticulturist/ Farmer and Homesteader. She and her husband Don live on a ¼ acre aptly named Itzy Bitzy Farm with their two dogs and twelve hens. Susan raises organically grown heirloom asparagus crowns till established at three years old and raspberry plants to sell to home gardeners. You can follow Itzy Bitzy Farm’s blog by signing up at www.itzybitzyfarm.com