You too can harvest your own veggies year-round even in a cold climate. Seriously, it's pretty easy. You just need to be willing to experiment with a few dollars worth of seeds (start with mini-packets of seeds). There is definite trial and error involved and you will suffer crop-loss at some point (welcome to farming). But you will also be rewarded with fresh, delicious food most of the time and most of the year. I focus on cold tolerant/hardy plant seeds on this page but be aware that in warmer climates and from April to October in most climates you will need to switch to heat/sun tolerant plant seeds. First thing to do is to examine the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and figure out which hardiness zone represents where you live. Next, if you are in zones 1-5 (and probably zone 6 as well) you need to understand that the plants really are not going to grow much (or at all) during the coldest couple of months so you need to plan accordingly. That is, if you want to be harvesting in January you will need to plant seeds between August and October, let things grow to decent sizes hopefully through the end of November or so, and then maintain the plants (mostly by keeping them out of the elements) until you want to harvest. OK, now decide what scale of project you would like to try and then check out the resources, links, and recommended seeds to start with I've compiled below. Please Note: I'm continually trying to update this page so check back for updates.

Farming Scale -> Hoophouse / Passive Solar Greenhouse

Resources / References
  • Brines Farm website and blog | Brines Farm Hoophouse Story
  • Any literature or workshops by Steve Moore. Steve Moore and his wife, Carol, are the founders of Harmony Essentials, an organization dedicated to the vision and practices of a sustaining food system. Steve is also the farmer at Sonnewald Natural Foods in Spring Grove, Pa. The Moore's can be reached at 1522 Lefever Ln., Spring Grove PA 17362. Articles about Steve Moore: Homepower Magazine | Part 1 and Part 2, Super Greenhouse, and Beyond Organics
  • Professor John Biernbaum and the MSU Student Organic Farm offer publications, workshops, and an academic certificate program. coverage: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
  • Winter Harvest Manual and other literature by Eliot Coleman / Four Season Farm.
    You could of course try seeds for any of the crops mentioned on my website and in the above resources. For your reference, the MSU Student Organic Farm, Four Season Farm, and my Brines Farm are all located in plant hardiness zone 5 while Steve More is located in zone 6. In general, if you are in zone 6 or warmer zones, I say you should feel comfortable trying for example any of the following seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds: Greens, Lettuce (that performs well in greenhouses), Spinach, Kale & Collards, Beets (particularly for their greens), Swiss Chard, and some Carrots, Onions, Leeks, and Turnips. Some herbs you could try are chives, cilantro, and parsley. If you are in plant hardiness zone 5 or colder zones you will want to pay a little more attention to the seeds you use. Note that with the preceding Johnny's Selected Seeds links you can sometimes refine your search for "cold tolerant" - look for a link on the right side of the page. I'm all about experimentation but if you are looking for seeds other people have had proven success with in cold climates (bearing in mind that winter weather varies from year to year affecting results) pay close attention to the seeds some of us mention in the above references. My short list is: Mache/Vit/Corn Salad, Claytonia (Miner's Salad), Arugula, Minutina, Kyona Mizuna, Mibuna, Tatsoi, Red Giant mustard green, Red Russian Kale, Space Spinach, Dark Lollo Rossa lettuce, Rouge D'Hiver lettuce, Winter Density lettuce, Hakurei Turnips, and Tadorna Leeks.

    Backyard Scale -> Small Hoophouse / Greenhouse

    Resources / References
  • How to make A Simple Greenhouse for your backyard by Dave Sebolt (pamphlet, fold in thirds)
  • Principles are the same as discussed in the above resources for larger scale greenhouses and four season harvesting. There are various kit options out there but if you are kind of handy I suggest trying something along the lines as the simple greenhouse above. For covering your structure I definitely recommend an actual greenhouse designated poly 6mil or so film if at all possible, even if you get a small dimensioned roll which you'll have to tape together. Since you really don't need that much maybe someone can cut you a deal on discards or leftovers. Look around near you for a greenhouse supplier. Alternatively, if you really want to try it out on the cheap, look for a more conventional nursery or greenhouse type operation and see if they will give you for free some old film off of a structure where they just replaced with new film. If it looks like you might have to buy new and mail order, and particularly if you are in a hardier zone (5 or lower) I recommend you consider Sun Selector brand film. Again check with your local greenhouse supplier if they have that brand in about 6mils but you may have to mail order it, I did.
    Temperatures inside a smaller backyard scale greenhouse tend to be a little cooler than those attained in a larger scale greenhouse (largely because you have smaller square footage of thermal mass, namely the soil/ground, that is retaining heat) so I recommend first experimenting with the more cold tolerant seeds of the ones mentioned previously. Of my short list above I would sub-set it to: Mache/Vit/Corn Salad, Claytonia (Miner's Salad), Arugula (switch to Sylvetta Arugula), Minutina, Tatsoi, Red Giant mustard greens, Red Russian Kale, Space Spinach, and Tadorna Leeks.

    Small Scale -> Cold Frame or Balcony or City Rooftop

    Resources / References
  • I will be updating this section here with more examples and links in the near future hopefully. But basically, again, the principles are the same as above. A Cold Frame (as defined by me, some people refer to hoophouses like mine as a cold frame even) is generally a small, rigid "mini-greenhouse" structure that is close to the ground. Effectively it is just a wooden box with a translucent/transparent top that you can open. The being able to open part (and secure it open) is pretty key, depending a bit on what zone, you are going to have open or ventilate your cold frame on a sunny winter day sometimes. Crops need to get some fresh air sometimes and don't like to overheat. That top could be a recycled window/glass, a sheet of plexi-glass, polycarbonate (from a greenhouse type supplier), or greenhouse film as mentioned above) on a hinged wooden frame.
  • For you urban dwellers balcony and rooftop gardens are pretty fun. If just starting out you might think about just the warmest 9 months or so of the year and use flats, window sill/window box pots, and large pots. If you want to attempt some winter harvest with that setup I would try planting some of the seeds below in the late summer and fall. When overnight lows start regularly dropping below freezing and when you start getting precipitation when temperatures are around freezing begin covering these plants up with something approaching greenhouse film. You'd be surprised how well some of these plants can fare just keeping the elements and wind chill off of them. If your balcony/rooftop setting is somewhat sheltered and southward facing, it could actually do quite well. Just be careful to secure any plastic, glass, films you are covering your setup with because balconies and rooftop settings can receive some weird winds and eddy winds and neighbors, landlords, and authority types may not appreciate materials blowing away in the wind.
  • If you would like to try some serious winter harvesting using a balcony or rooftop setup and you are in a zone 6 or colder zone I highly recommend incorporating cold frame type structures. While I'm familiar with rooftop greenhouse examples in cities like Toronto and NYC for sure because of the need to secure said structures against wind etc. a lower profile structure like a cold frame is the way to go at least initially. Remember you will need to come up with a system or protocol for fixing the cold frame open and/or ventilating it on those super sunny late winter days.
  • A great DIY: Cold Frame resource from fellow Ann Arborite and Green Options blogger Philip Proefrock. It references this very page at the end of the article regarding cold hardy seeds to try.
  • Additional DIY cold frames: empty wooden wine case boxes (check with someplace/one who goes through a lot of wine) make nifty little flats or junior cold frames if you make a little top for them. Of course, you can always build one as well - Cold Frame booklet for $2.95 from Johnny's | online DIY example 1 | online DIY example 2 | online DIY example 3 | online DIY example 4 | online DIY example 5
  • Buy a cold frame: example | another example with thicker polycarbonate.
  • In plant hardiness zone 5 or colder zones, if going for winter harvest, you should consider insulating the outside base of your cold frame with some insulating blue board perhaps or straw/hay if possible depending on your setting.
    Of my short list above I would sub-set it again to: Mache/Vit/Corn Salad, Claytonia (Miner's Salad), Arugula (switch to Sylvetta Arugula ), Minutina, Tatsoi, Red Giant mustard greens, Red Russian Kale, Space Spinach, and Tadorna Leeks.

    Window Sill or Potted House Plant Scale

    Resources / References
  • If you will be growing things in a strictly indoor environment in flats or pots I suggest trying your basic herbs like basil and micro mixes and sprouts. The reason is that your indoor environment, particularly on a windowsill right next t o an old radiator, can sometimes be too warm, especially for cold tolerant types . (If you tried starting lettuce seeds for example they can sprout but then the y will get "leggy" on you if you can't move them to a cooler space that also has good lighting.) Fortunately sprouts are delicious and make a great mix.
  • Sometimes inside doesn't receive nearly the light as a balcony or rooftop depend ing on your setting. You might consider buying a basic timer from your local ha rdware store so that you can provide decent lighting, perhaps with your basic fl uorescent workshop light, to your sprout operation for 8-12 hours a day. Also, consider watering your sprout flats with a spray/mist bottle initially or a nice watering can (usually with a brass head) that provides a nice even light spray.
  • Publications: Sprouting Manual for $25 from FoodShare in Toronto | Sprouts, The Miracle Food "sprouting guide for seed to salad in one week" for $10.50 from Johnny's.
    Check out Johnny's Selected Seeds Micro Mix and Sprouts selections.

    Notes in General

    Soil of course is one of the most important components. For all settings I suggest a healthy compost soil. I'm generally not a fan of potting soil mixes or conventional starter mixes, unless you make yourself. It's always best to know exactly what's in your soil. Where to get compost? You can always make it. You could use vermiculture in a more urban setting. Find a local gardening or 4-H club. Look for your local state university county extension agent or office. Even NYC has one. Check with landscaping companies and find out where they buy their compost if they don't sell any themselves. In an urban setting, another idea is to ask a farmer you like at your local farmers market if they might sell you some healthy compost soil (perhaps in heavy-duty garbage bags or 5 gallon buckets with lids). Of course, keep in mind that they will effectively be doing you a favor because it is one of their most important resources so be nice when you ask but I bet you could find some willing as long as they have room to transport it when they come to market. Farmers market farmers are typically pretty nice. Heck, I take some of my regulars compostable food scraps to compost on the farm.
    The question I get asked the most is "What about watering during the winter?" and the short answer is "you don't do a lot of it, at all." This is particularly true in colder climates like zone 5 or colder. Remember, if you doing winter harvesting in zones like this, your plants really should have gotten most of their growth done by the end of November, so you are mainly just trying to maintain them. This does not necessitate a lot of water generally but will depend on your setting and how much sun exposure you get. So you really have to get a feel for winter watering, pay attention to the weather, and make the call since most settings are unique. In general, I don't water if there is no sun and the air temperature around the plants is freezing or colder. So basically I wait for days that will be quite sunny, I water early so it has time to soak in, and I make sure I cover the plants back up (plastic or row cover or shutting the cold frame) if temperatures are falling later after watering. If I see there will be multiple days above freezing day and night, I generally water a bit as well regardless of sunshine. As an example, here in cold cloudy Michigan I can go with only half a dozen watering days or so during the cloudiest/coldest couple of months. As the length of day begins increasing in February and we get more sunny days through March and April we water a whole lot more.

    Good luck. Please feel free to email me stories and good links and resources online that I should share.
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