One of the best things about farming in North Carolina is, with just a little cold protection, you can grow crops almost all winter long. We have a winter CSA that lasts from November until the end of January. It has produce that rivals any summer CSA. Here are some keys to winter farming.
Choose cold tolerant varieties: This should be the first thing you think about when you are sweating it out in August, considering what seeds to order for the winter. Don’t just automatically pick what you have always grown. Pay special attention to the description of the seeds you are considering. Be sure to choose varieties that have the best cold tolerance. Johnnie’s Selected Seeds and Territorial Seed Company both do a very good job of highlighting which varieties have the best cold tolerance. Look for the best cold tolerant varieties of kale, mustards, arugula, beets, turnips, cabbage, carrots, onions, leeks, radish, broccoli, and cauliflower. Give up on the tomatoes. Good genetics for cold weather should be your first step when planning your winter crop.
Pick a good location: When you are considering where to put your winter crop, look for a location with full sun, wind protection, and good water drainage. You don’t want your crop in a cold shady bottom area that doesn’t warm up until afternoon. That will be a recipe for disaster. Wind protection is important because many crops can survive a freeze, however, they can’t survive being frozen and beaten to death by the wind. If you have ever walked out into a collard greens field in the winter, you will see the leaves can be frozen solid in the morning, then thaw out and be just fine that afternoon. When plants are frozen, the cells are very fragile and you can easily damage them. Actually, no one should even walk into a frozen field because simply touching them can cause damage. Imagine the problems that can be caused by frozen plants being whipped around by the wind. Wind can also drop the temperature by several degrees, and conversely, a sunny protected area can be several degrees warmer than an open area. Good drainage is important because, in the winter, plants often grow slowly, so they are not taking up very much water. Additionally, it is cool, so water evaporates more slowly. The area has to drain well or the crop will be languishing with wet feet. Cold wet roots lead to poor growth, plant diseases and death.
Have some row covers: There are many winters in North Carolina that have only a few hard freezes. If your crop is in a warm and protected location, and has good genetic cold tolerance, you might be able to harvest produce nearly all winter, if you have some row covers. We use Agribon covers. They come on a roll in several sizes. You just roll it over the crop and secure the edges. It adds several degrees of protection for those super cold nights. The key to success with these row covers is to make sure the edges are secured, so they don’t blow off and destroy produce! Frozen plants are extremely fragile, and moving around the row covers, while things are frozen, will cause damage.
If you want to get fancy, you can make some simple hoops out of PVC pipe and make low tunnels with plastic. We do this for some of our taller crops. It can be a pain because these low tunnels love to blow off. Also, these tunnels can get very hot on a sunny day, and you can actually kill the crop with heat if you are not careful. If you go this route, be sure to place the tunnels in an area you can “babysit”, because it takes a lot of care to ensure they don’t blow off on the coldest night or heat up too much in the middle of the day. Managing row covers is an art. We have both killed and saved many crops with covers.
Growing in the winter is challenging and rewarding. Give it a try!
Eat veggies all year!