Sow Late: Six Tips for Planting in Fall and Winter

by Doug Muller

It's still officially summer, but the writing is on the wall: the big dark looming cold season awaits us, patiently. This knowledge stops many gardeners in their tracks, shifting their attention from sowing and transplanting and cultivating to harvesting and getting inside--quick. The wise gardener sees this impulse, honors it, and then--despite the increasing dark and cold--keeps on sowing.

Bloomsdale Spinach by Ayumi Horie Bloomsdale Spinach by Ayumi Horie

Why? Once the main harvest season winds down in October, you'll soon find yourself yearning for the halcyon days of fresh, crisp, tasty vegetables. Keep them coming with the following tips.

  1. Don't Hesitate! The last days for outdoor sowing are here. Sow arugula, spinach, turnips, and radishes before September 10th for harvest in early- to mid-November.
  2. A Little Protection Goes a Long Way. Have a cold frame or plastic tunnel that you use for seed-starting in the spring? Use it now to keep fresh veggies on the table all winter. An investment of an hour or two in a simple plastic hoop will provide delicious dividends all winter long. Some instructions for an inexpensive, sturdy cold frame are here.
  3. Think Slow. It's important to remember that plants naturally germinate and grow more slowly in the shorter days and cooler temps of fall and winter. Keep your expectations in check and your view long: seeds sown in September and October will take twice as long (or longer!) to mature as those sown in spring. This slowness has its advantages: the protected winter beds provide slow and steady harvests rather than condensed high-volume yields, which means they are easier to handle and incorporate into your meals.
  4. Think Green. The crops that do best in the winter are green and leafy (or, in the case of scallions, green and stalky). While there are several root crops you can sow at this late date (basically just turnips and radishes), the majority of a winter harvest is made up of cold-tolerant greens. (There are no fruiting crops that I know that will fruit in the winter without a fully heated greenhouse.) The most cold-tolerant greens for which we sell seeds are, roughly in order from most cold tolerant to least cold tolerant: Mache, Spinach, Tendergreen Mustard, Tatsoi, Wild Arugula, Arugula, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, and Lettuce.
  5. Think Spring. Any seeds sown after October 15th or so have little opportunity to grow before the dormant period of too-little light sets in. (In the Hudson Valley, this quiet, dark time runs from about Thanksgiving to Groundhog's Day--basically the months of December and January.) Many of these crops will begin growing again come February, when the daylight increases. In fact, the only way to have fresh greens from a cold frame during February, March, and April is to sow seeds from October through December, so go for it--and don't think about them much until the days start lengthening again. (Be aware, too, that many crops--especially the brassicas--will bolt once the days begin to lengthen significantly in March. Lettuce, spinach, chard, and most other greens will not bolt until deeper spring and greater plant maturity, though.) Many of these seeds can be sown right out in the open before the ground freezes; they'll get a much earlier start than spring-sown crops and will be ready a month or so earlier.
  6. Be courageous! Winter growing is a big experiment for most everyone. With a little courage and a little planning, you'll have fresh food on the table when most gardeners are buying produce at the store.