Winter gardening did not sound appealing to me at first. I thought it would be cold and miserable. I. hate. being. cold.
However, I gave winter gardening a shot this year and it turns out winter gardening is very low maintenance! I now prefer it to summer gardening. (I know how crazy that sounds.)
Winter gardening can be done with a low tunnel or without. Either way you can get a jump on the growing season, while using less water and spending less time weeding or fighting pests. (I sound less crazy now right?!)
I have a few overwintered crops in my space right now. Some that need the low tunnel and some that do not.
First, lets talk about low tunnel winter gardening.
Eliot Coleman, an innovator in the gardening world, designed the low tunnel to act as a cost effective unheated mini greenhouse for home gardeners. Originally, the idea was to overwinter cold hardy food crops, but flower farmers also use the low tunnel to overwinter flowers.
I have a low tunnel over the crops that are not hardy to my zone, but still prefer a cool establishment period (ranunculus and anemone). I am in zone 7, but my ranunculus are only hardy to zone 8 (a tiny bit more mild than my zone). The tunnel provides just enough protection to keep my ground from freezing and killing the ranunculus, but still allows them to get the long cool establishment period they prefer. Picky things.
Caring for my low tunnel crop is simpler than I thought it would be. I just vent my low tunnel on warm sunny winter days and if the weather stays above 28F for three consecutive days I water a little bit. However, that has only happened once and I don’t expect it to happen more than 3 times all winter. In general, the low tunnel provides adequate humidity.
I also have winter crops that do not require a low tunnel. These are known as hardy annuals (snapdragons, bupleurum, poppies, etc.) and also include the fall planted bulbs/tubers that are hardy to my zone (tulips, daffodils, peonies etc.).
These overwintered crops are so low maintenance, because winter snow takes care of most watering needs and the plants are dormant (meaning they are not in a very active growing stage).
This means the plants just need a dry fertilizer sprinkled in the fall during planting and it will slow feed them all winter.
Note that hardy annual seeds should be started mid summer and bulbs/tubers/corms are started in the fall.
As for pests, I did have a neighborhood kitty that wanted to dig in my rows, but I laid down bird netting over the soil and haven’t noticed problems since. (I am grateful for our neighborhood mouser, but don’t like working around kitty poop.) So far, I have not noticed any of the typical spring or summer garden pests munching on my plants.
The final key to easy winter gardening is to suppress weeds early on so you don’t have to weed in the snow and mud.
I use burned landscape fabric in my low tunnel and have not needed to weed yet.
In the rows I struggled a bit with weeds around the hardy annual plants, but that could have easily been prevented with some mulch or more landscape fabric. (I haven’t noticed any weeds in my bulb rows yet.)
Thanks to my winter garden, I will have MORE robust crops earlier, using LESS water and spending LESS time to care for them. In our dry Utah climate, I consider that a big win!
If I have convinced you to try winter gardening and you would like to make your own low tunnel for food crops or blooms, then follow this awesome tutorial by Bare Mountain Farm.
My low tunnel cost about $250 to construct with parts from Home Depot and Amazon. I have 6 mil UV treated greenhouse plastic over tunnel and AG19 frost cloth inside.
Even if you don’t need a low tunnel for your crops (if you stick with hardy annuals and bulbs that grow in your zone), I would have a frost cloth on hand for extra cold snaps. If you know temps are dropping below freezing, I would toss a frost blanket over your crops just to be safe.
One last note, if you are interested in winter gardening for cut flowers I would read Lisa Zeigler’s Cool Flowers book. I have a copy on my bookshelf that I reference constantly.
And of course, winter gardening would not be complete without some late winter seed starting! Read up on my best tips for indoor seed starting here.
If you have additional questions or want to share your winter gardening experiences, please leave me a comment below.