In part three of our winter gardening series let’s talk about cold frame crops.
The crops that I will talk about in this post and in post #4 of the series are what I consider the “base” crops to grow in your cold frames. There are actually close to 30 different crops, but the 8 in these two posts will take up the majority of the space in your cold frames and hoop houses.
Cold Frame Crops for Fall and Winter Harvest
Lettuce does well in cold frames until mid-December
Most varieties of lettuce will do great in the cold frames. There are some growers that focus on some extra cold-hardy varieties, Johnny Seeds has several. The variety Winter Density is specifically bred to grow well in the winter!
Don’t bother with head lettuce, it will never get done before the real cold hits. But leaf, bib, and even romaine or cos types will do very well. Be prepared to harvest all your lettuce as soon as the really cold weather sets in. Even under protection lettuce won’t hold up all winter, when the temps drop into the low 20’s you will start to lose the outside leaves and eventually the whole plant.
Those 20’s usually show up for us in early December, so we harvest the entire plants at that time and store them in a tight container in the fridge. That usually keeps for another month, so we have lettuce until Christmas. Last year a friend of mine was able to keep lettuce growing well all winter in a hoop house where he added bottles of water for supplemental heat. We are going to experiment with that this year so I will report on the progress as the winter approaches.
We love fresh spinach in our winter salads. Most varieties seem to do well, we are trying a new type this year that is different than we have used in the past. Bloomsdale has a little larger leaves and should be a bit more cold hardy. January is the toughest month for winter gardens and spinach is one of the few crops that we are still able to harvest at that time.
Be sure to go easy on the harvest in the coldest months. Leave a few green leaves on each plant so that they can build energy in the spring and start growing again. You will find your fall-planted, overwintered spinach will take off growing again in early spring and give you a second fantastic harvest until May!
We are big fans of Swiss Chard and it is one of the most productive cold frame crops. One year we planted 5 four foot rows and we were overwhelmed. We had so much that we picked at it all winter and spring and eventually pulled out the plants and feed them to the chickens to make room for summer crops. Chard is good as an additional ingredient in salads and is great if you like cooked greens. We also enjoy eating the celery-like stalks in the summer, but we have found that the plants never get a chance to grow big enough for good stalks in the winter; we mostly just grow it for the greens.
Sorrel is one of the more exotic cold frame crops. You can see our sorrel growing on the right edge of this bed. Sorrel is a perennial plant and we have decided to treat it as such. The plants you see here were planted as starts way back in February and have been providing greens for us since May. This year we should have some sorrel all winter. Sorrel is similar to spinach in texture but has a very distinct lemony flavor. It is a great addition to salads. Sorrel can also be used more like an herb in soups, fish or chicken dishes.
Another one of the great cold frame crops is Pac Choy. We love Pac Choy (aka Bak Choy) for stir-fries. The smaller leaves are also good in salads. We plant Pac Choy from starts in September; the plants love the cool fall weather and usually last well into November.
Chinese cabbages are a fall plant, the cool temperatures and lessening light make these plants grow big and tasty. We have never had much success with them any other time of the year. A friend tells me this is because the increasing light of spring triggers the plants to bolt. To be honest we have always eaten ours up by November. So I’m not sure how well they do over the winter. I have read of people having success planting and harvesting them as baby salad greens in the winter but I have never tried. We have also had success with Tatsoi as well, which is another Chinese cabbage.
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