September 6th, 2016

By Paul Pagoda, “Farmer” Paul, School Garden Educator at Colfax K- 8 and the Montessori School

A pretty big obstacle we face in designing school gardens is that the students are away on summer break during what some might call our peak growing season of June-August. This challenge led us to choose certain crops and gardening methods to extend our school garden growing season well into the winter months. 


If you are interested in growing fresh food all year long or want to do some long-term garden planning for the Spring, here are some key ways we keep our garden growing throughout the Winter:

1. Certain veggies can grow all winter long in our climate! Plants in the Brasicae family -arugula, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, cress, kale, kohlrabi, mizuna, mustard, radish, rutabaga, tat soi, turnip, watercress – make great additions to a winter garden. For the best results, apply a thick layer of straw mulch, at least 4 inches, across the entire garden bed. This will help keep the plants warm during extreme chills and will also help retain moisture and build soil nutrients. Straw is available to Garden Resource Center members.

2. If you have the resources, use floating row covers, especially on shorter crops that might get covered by a good snow. I have found my tall kale and collard plants can handle the snowfall in Pittsburgh whereas the spinach does better under cover.

3. Plant garlic! Garlic grows over the course of a winter season so it’s perfect for a winter garden. It can be easily propagated from the garlic bulbs you already have or you can purchase specific varieties from seed catalogs. You could plant winter greens along with your garlic to maximize growing space. In the spring you can harvest the garlic scapes and in mid-July the garlic bulbs will be ready for harvesting. Save some bulbs for planting a new crop next season.

4. In garden beds where you are not going to plant new crops, start winter cover crops such as oats, rye, field peas, vetch, or crimson clover. These crops will hold your valuable top soil in place, build nitrogen into the soil, and can then be “chopped and dropped” as a mulch for your next round of planting. These plants will also appreciate a thick straw mulch layer.

5. As the winter garden plants begin producing less and less food, allow them to flower. In the early spring these colorful plants will bring color to the garden space and attract an early round of pollinators.

6. Plant flower bulbs in the Fall. These will be attractive flowers to beneficial insects early in the Spring. They can also be planted in rows to act as a barrier against grasses or other invasive weeds you don’t want spreading, such as a mint.

7. Start a new in-ground bed to be ready in the Spring. The idea is to build soil for a new garden bed with sheet mulching. Pick a spot where you want to grow crops in for the next Spring season. Collect a enough cardboard/Newspaper/Junk Mail/ etc. to cover the space. Lay the cardboard down, then lay down compost/kitchen scraps/any organic material, and finally apply a thick layer of straw on top. You could also get a cover crop started in this spot to boost nutrients and help break up the soil further. This is sheet mulch is going to kill the plants already in place and build soil for the next growing season. In the spring simply poke a hole in the sheet much and drop in your seeds/plants.

Here is a great sheet mulching step by step video…

8. Plant a tree! Most trees prefer to be transplanted in the fall. This way they only need to focus their energy on building a strong root system, since they will drop their leaves anyway. If planted in the Spring, trees have to divide their energy between their roots systems and making new leaves, which can become too stressful. However, nurseries tend to have a better tree selection in the Spring time so plan ahead. Buy your trees in the Spring, acclimate them and install them in the Fall.

9. Water your trees a lot before the winter arrives.Trees need a good store of water before the ground freezes. Once the water freezes in the ground trees are not able to make use of it. Over water your trees and shrubs before the ground freezes.

10. Observe the land! Use significant weather events as opportunities to inform your garden plan for next season. Use flags to mark water flows and puddles. These can become places to consider for future earthworks, water loving species or trees that absorb water. Use snow drifts to observe prevailing wind patterns. This can help you plan for potential wind break features.

If you have any questions or ideas to share about Winter gardening, please e-mail or We would love to hear your thoughts.

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