The key to understanding fall and winter harvests is to know that the majority of the growth that occurs in fall/winter vegetables happens during summer and early fall.
Image source: familyfoodgarden.com
It is important to distinguish between vegetables that are planted in early fall and harvested in the early spring, and vegetables that can be planted in early fall for harvest throughout the fall months.
Vegetables that can be planted in the fall, but harvested in the spring are called “overwintering” vegetables. These types of vegetables are frost-resistant (meaning they can withstand cold temperatures without dying) and will remain dormant throughout the winter months, until spring, when they will begin to grow again.
The reason these vegetables can survive the cold winter months is really interesting: they have a natural anti-freeze method. Plants that aren’t well adapted die in cold weather because the water in their cells freezes, killing the cells. But, cold-tolerant plants dehydrate their cells, forcing the water into the spaces outside and between the cell walls. The water will then freeze in those spaces, instead of inside the cells. The fluid inside the cells is made up of sugars, and becomes more concentrated as the water moves out of the cells, forming a natural antifreeze inside the cells.
This explains why certain winter vegetables taste sweeter after being in the freezer (try it with your kale sometime!).
Some examples of overwintering veggies are garlic, onions, chard, and brassicas such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale. Some of these vegetables, like kale and broccoli, can be harvested throughout the winter as well, taking one or two leaves or heads here and there; although they will be most productive in the spring.
Vegetables that can be planted and harvested in the fall include veggies such as spinach, lettuce, arugula, radishes, carrots, beets, white turnips, kohlrabi, peas, oriental salads such as pac choi, mibuna, and mizuna. These veggies can be directly sown into the soil from seed in late August and early September, and will be ready for harvest throughout fall.
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