Editor’s note: Get Growing, written by the La Plata County Extension Office’s Master Gardener Program, appears every other week during the growing season. It features timely tips and suggestions for your garden and landscape.
By Jama Crawford
As the sun sets on our growing season – four glorious frost-free months – most mountain gardeners put their gardens to bed. But some people launch a winter garden and raise delicious veggies from October through May, thanks to our ideal growing climate.
“Ideal growing climate?” you ask. Every local gardener laments our untimely frosts and chilly nights. But winter vegetables don’t care how cold it gets or how much snow falls. They thrive by building their own sweet and salty antifreeze. This natural defense against frost adds flavor, too. Some crops taste best when grown under cold conditions.
A successful winter garden requires wind protection, getting an early start, increased plant spacing and choosing the right crops.
Many structures provide wind protection. A wood, bent-pipe or straw-bale frame covered with clear plastic will do. If it lets in sunshine and blocks the wind, then it will work. No artificial heat or light is needed. For ideas, search “low tunnel” or “cold frame” on the Internet.
Getting an early start prolongs the harvest. Most plants seeded in early October can be harvested by Thanksgiving. There are a few exceptions. If possible, seed carrots in August and spinach in September. You also can transplant summer crops into your structure. Plants grow very slowly in midwinter, but resume vigorous growth in February.
Set plants farther apart than usual. Their roots need extra room to gather up antifreeze ingredients.
Seed selection is crucial as only certain plants will survive a Colorado winter. These include spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, parsley, dill, cilantro, leeks, carrots, radishes, scallions, mizuna, pak choi, beet greens, arugula, mustard, Brussels sprouts, collards, garlic, chamomile, mache, claytonia and pansies. Red varieties do especially well in midwinter.
Winter gardens are easy, with few weeds or pests. Aphids are an exception because they acquire antifreeze from the plants they eat. Remove aphid-infested beds in January and reseed a spring crop. There is no need to water in December and January when plants stop growing. During the rest of the winter use a soil-moisture gauge and sprinkle the soil as needed.
Jama Crawford has been a Colorado Master Gardener since 2010. She lives in La Plata County.