Garden Winter Wear

February 4, 2007

After a mild start to the winter season the U.S. is in the midst of a severe cold spell, and here in the Northeast we are becoming reacquainted with ice and snow.

While the garden is now in a deep slumber, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the winter gardening gear that I’m using to protect my plants through cold weather conditions.

For plants such as bay laurel tree and a two foot tall espaliered Rosemary plant the only option is to bring them indoors and hope that they can tolerate a few months of being cooped up inside. Hardy edible perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, oregano, chives, tarragon, and sea kale can easily survive even the coldest of winters outdoors in the garden.

But for other less hardy perennial vegetable and herb plants, their only hope of becoming anything more than a once and done annual is to benefit from a milder than normal winter or receive a helping hand in the form of some extra care and attention from the home gardener.

Protection for the Winter Garden

These low-tech cold weather gardening ideas aren’t intended to promote additional plant growth outdoors in cold climates, but they will help to keep mature plants in harvestable condition much longer. And more importantly, a little cold weather plant protection can also shelter the root systems or tubers of the less hardy perennial vegetables that would otherwise die during frigid winters spent exposed to northern climates.

Cold-Frame.jpgYou’re probably already familiar with using cold frames to extend the growth of cold weather crops such as leafy greens and root crops well into autumn. I’ve taken one of my cold frames a step further by adding a soil heating cable underneath to turn it into a hot bed. This bottom heat extends the growing season but still isn’t sufficient to keep plants growing through the harsh winters in Pennsylvania.

When the reality creeps in that you’re not going to enjoy an entire winter season of mild temperatures, devoid of ice and snow, at least you can hold on to the hopes that some of your favorite plants will survive to see the warmer days of springtime. A little planning and preparation will increase the odds that those borderline perennial vegetables and herbs will make it through winter alive.

Creating a Garden Windbreak

The first thing to consider is that in many cases it’s not the cold that is the prime enemy, but rather the winter winds that cause the most damage to plants left standing in the backyard garden. That’s what makes a snow cover or a natural windbreak such as a wall or a screen of evergreen trees and shrubs so beneficial to the garden.

If you can’t count on a consistent snow cover and your garden isn’t blessed with a natural windbreak you can improvise and look around for materials that can be used to create a windbreak to shield the garden from harsh northern winds.

A thick covering of shredded leaves is the simulated snow cover that I employ each fall to protect the bed of gourmet garlic and home grown shallots and prevent damage from heaving as the soil goes through alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Leaves can also serve as an insulated buffer for young plants against frigid, drying winds, and to blanket root crops that remain in the ground.

Portable-Cold-Frame.jpgThis year I left a portable woven plastic cold frame right in the garden throughout winter. The cold frame was positioned over a six by four foot section of a raised bed that contained Swiss Chard, oriental greens, collards, kale, and a couple of globe artichoke plants. The main concern was with the artichokes and providing enough protection to enable them to over winter in my northern garden.

Wall-of Water Winter Fortress

A wall-of-Water device surrounds another globe artichoke plant and a nearby purple sprouting broccoli plant. If you’ve never seen one, a Wall-of-Water consists of a ring of plastic two foot high tubes that are filled with water and placed around individual plants to form an insulated barrier against frost and cold.

Wall-of-Water.jpgWall of Water’s are typically used in the spring to provide warmth and frost protection to sensitive plants such as tomatoes and peppers, allowing gardeners to get a jump on the planting season. Oddly enough water can give off heat and provide warmth even as it turns to ice, so I decided to experiment to see if the wall-of-water devices would be effective in protecting over wintering plants.

You can probably tell by all of the attention that I give to them, that I’m a big fan of growing globe artichokes in the backyard garden. Last year I had pretty good success with digging the roots up and storing them in a bucket of sand to over winter in an unheated garage, but this year I wanted to see if they could survive right in the garden with a bit of winter protection.

Perennial Vegetable Outer Wear

A beautiful cardoon plant that was the star of the fall garden landscape was also attired in a special winter outfit to help keep it warm and dry over the winter months. In this case a huge plastic container with a circular opening molded into the top was used to create a makeshift garden cloche. I have no idea what this contraption’s original purpose was, but as soon as I saw it I knew that it would make a perfect super-sized cloche.

Improvised-Garden-Cloche.jpgTo make the outfit even more comfy I later added a custom lining of you guessed it, a layer of shredded leaves. The leaves were stuffed to overflowing inside of the container and for good measure they were piled high around the outside as well. Now if that cardoon doesn’t survive the winter I’ll just have to be content with raising them as an annual plant here in my zone 6 growing region.

Part of the thrill of gardening lies in pushing the envelope and growing interesting plants in places and under conditions thought impossible. Sometimes things don’t work out or grow as intended, but even the “failures” turn into lessons and the triumphs of seeing a plant that isn’t supposed to survive actually flourish in your own backyard is so very satisfying.

So I’ll be sure to let you know how the artichokes and cardoon fare when spring returns and I look to celebrate with all of the surprising plant survivors that come through the winter and make their appearances above ground as the weather warms up to their liking.

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