Growing winter vegetable garden is one of the most overlooked ways to get more out of your vegetable garden.
Plant non-fruiting vegetables near the end of summer to make sure plants have time to grow to a harvestable size before the first frost. Learning which winter vegetables to grow and when to plant them will depend on your growing climate, but in general, these are the 20 best winter vegetables you can grow to produce fresh crop of veggies all winter long
2. Bok Choy
5. Corn Salad
18. Swiss Chard
Winter veggies are sweet and crisp, and they require far less maintenance than their midsummer counterparts.
Winter vegetable care is similar to summer vegetable care- except for timing. The farther south you live, the more flexibility you have with how you plant your winter garden.
However, even climates with deep winters can support a winter harvest if the plots are prepared properly. And first step to success is to determining when and what to plant your winter vegetable garden.
And this ultimate guide my goal is to help to learn about which winter vegetables to grow and when to plant them.
But before this, know how to prepare your garden plot for a winter harvest.
Want the quick version? Jump to our care guides to learn more about individual winter crops.
When to Plant Vegetables for a Winter Harvest
Determining when to plant your winter vegetables is the secret of success for winter gardens. Before you begin planning a winter plot, find your climate’s Persephone Period, or the period of time when you have less than 10 hours of daylight.
For example, in Kansas City, MO, November 10th is the first day of the Persephone Period, because it is the first day that has less than 10 hours of daylight. The end of the period is January 24th, which is the first day of more than 10 hours of daylight.
Active growth stops when the Persephone Period begins. During the Persephone Period, plants remain in stasis; they don’t grow and they don’t die, as long as they are protected from ice and wind.
If plants are a harvestable age before the first day of the Persephone Period, you can harvest them throughout the winter.
Timing, then, is simply a matter of calculating how many weeks each plant takes to reach maturity, and working backwards from your climate’s first day of the Persephone Period:
Weeks Before Persephone Period To Start Transplants:
Weeks Before Persephone Period To Direct Seed:
Winter vegetables are not fruiting vegetables (except for peas), so they can be harvested at any point as long as they have true leaves.
The earlier you plant, the more mature your plants will be. If you want baby winter veggies, plant later.
Remember; plants stop growing once the days are 10 hours or shorter. So, if you want to harvest baby greens all winter, you will need to plant 5x the amount of seeds as you would for mature salad greens.
Preparing Your Winter Vegetable Garden
Winter gardens are much less demanding than summer gardens, but they do have a few unique challenges.
During the winter, pests are hibernating and most plant diseases are unable to survive due to cold temperatures. Plants don’t need much water once they stop active growth, at which point they stop using nutrients from the soil.
This means normal gardening tasks like watering, fertilizing, and pest control are almost nonexistent in a winter garden.
However, winter veggies are prone to freezing.
Plant cells have a thick membrane called a cell wall. When plants are turgid, or fully hydrated, the cells can burst when temperatures dip below freezing because the water inside the cell turns into ice and expands.
Light frost is not a concern for most veggies, but a hard freeze will cause leaves to turn into a green sludge as the cells rupture.
There are a few methods to prevent freeze damage on winter veggies:
Straw is a cheap mulch that can prolong the life of any winter vegetable. Cover the entire plant with loose piles of straw, but make sure there is plenty of space for airflow to prevent rot. In windier climates, you may need to construct a small fence or cage to hold straw in place. Do not use straw until the Persephone Period has started.
Plants under plastic sheeting or cloches during the winter are at a higher risk of rot and insect damage.
However, they also create a much warmer environment for more sensitive winter crops. Pests and rot should not be a problem if covers are removed during the day to promote air circulation.
Plants under frost fabric have the most balanced environment. The fabric protects the leaves from ice crystals, which will prevent most freeze damage.
The fabric also breathes, which means the odds of insect infestation or rot is much lower than plastic sheeting. Frost fabric is the best all-purpose option for prolonging a winter harvest.
Plants with no protection may suffer during windy, dry, or freezing conditions. Only the most hardy cold-tolerant plants can provide a reliable winter harvest with no protection.
Soil Preparation For Winter Vegetables
Winter vegetables are not heavy feeders, so soil preparation is more focused on creating a soft seedbed and removing old plant material.
1. Clear sections of garden plots that are done producing for the summer.
2. Add a few inches of compost and mix in thoroughly.
3. Rake the seedbed to prepare for planting.
Although plants won’t use much water or nutrients once the Persephone Period begins, most winter veggies benefit from a few inches of compost before planting.
Compost provides fertilizer for the first few weeks of growth, and then once plants stop actively growing, the organic matter holds moisture and provides insulation from freezing temperatures.
Winter veggies must have a healthy root system in place before the first frost. Compost ensures soil is fertile, well-drained, and retains moisture for winter growth.
Mulching A Winter Garden
Mulch is imperative for a successful winter harvest.
Mulch prevents the soil from freezing, which keeps the roots from dying. Spread mulch extra thick during the winter, and if it’s light, you can even cover the first few inches of the stems for extra protection.
Some common mulch options are:
Irrigate thoroughly before you apply mulch so that the mulch can help retain moisture in the soil.
Winter Vegetable Care Guides
Once your veggies are planted, use the following care guides to ensure a thriving winter harvest.
Cold hardiness is rated on a scale of 1-3, with 1 being the least cold-hardy and 3 being the most cold-hardy. Cold hardiness is not just a measurement of cold tolerance; rather it is a measurement of the plant’s overall ability to survive winter production.
Each plant will have a lowest temperature tolerated, which indicates the lowest temperature plants can tolerate for less than 4 hours without severe leaf death.
Each layer of frost fabric or plastic sheeting lowers the tolerance another 10° F , so arugula can tolerate 22° F unprotected, 12° F in a hoophouse, and 2° F in a hoophouse with a frost fabric covering.
Almost all winter veggies grow well in full or part sun. However, this light recommendation is based on summer daylight hours. Part sun refers to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day; preferably afternoon sun.
Plant winter veggies in an area where they will get as much light as possible, even though some can tolerate a few hours of light shade.
20 Hardy Winter Vegetables To Grow
This salad green has a mild spicy flavor that intensifies as the plant matures. Arugula is also known as rocket, and it is a member of the brassica family. Do not plant arugula in the same plot where cabbage, broccoli, kale, or other brassicas were grown during the summer.
Special Instructions: Arugula’s spicy flavor is tempered by winter’s colder weather. Cooler temperatures give the greens a sweet, crisp flavor without being overpowering.
2. Bok Choy
Bok choy is also known as Chinese cabbage, and it is also a member of the brassica family. Although it is called a cabbage, it doesn’t form a head like other cabbages.
Instead, it grows a thick stalk with dark, crunchy leaves. Bok choy has a more mild cabbage flavor that is even less pronounced during winter production.
Special Instructions: Bok choy can go to seed, or bolt, if it is exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees F before the Persephone Period begins. Once daylight hours have shortened, bok choy can tolerate light frost, but it may bolt as soon as the days begin to lengthen.
Carrots are a biennial that tolerates cool temperatures, but the tops may die back if it gets too cold. Plant carrots in succession, sowing a new row each week until 4 weeks before the first frost.
Harvest mature carrots during the winter, and leave the smaller carrots until spring. As soon as the days lengthen, the dormant plants will start to grow again and provide you with an early spring harvest.
Napoli and Mokum are the best varieties for winter production.
Special Instructions: Mulch carrots 3” – 4” deep to prevent soil from freezing. Use a cold frame or frost fabric to lengthen harvest season.
Most herbs prefer warm growing conditions, but cilantro thrives in cooler weather. Plants will be shorter and a lighter green color than during the summer, and they may not last the entire winter in northern climates.
Don’t count on cilantro to make a comeback when it warms up; plant new seeds when the weather starts to warm up for a fresh spring crop.
Special Instructions: Cilantro bolts easily in warm weather, so it’s best to start the seeds later to avoid premature bolting.
5. Corn Salad
Corn salad, or mȃche, is a small, dark salad green. It is part of the honeysuckle family, which makes it a great option for planting in winter garden plots that have been used for brassicas during the summer.
Corn salad will not be affected by the nematodes that attack the roots of brassica plants, and it is an incredibly reliable winter crop. Plants will not regrow in the spring, so be prepared to plant an early spring crop when the days lengthen.
Special Instructions: Corn salad goes to seed quickly in warm weather. Plant succession crops until 4 weeks before the beginning of the Persephone Period to ensure a few months of winter harvest.
Cress is an herb that is in the brassica family. Its flavor closely resembles watercress and mustard, although it is less intense and sweeter, especially during the winter.
Cress is an amazing microgreen or baby green, but it becomes tough and bitter as soon as it matures. Plant a little later in the season to make sure plants are still young and tender before the first frost.
Special Instructions: Cress needs wet growing conditions, so keep it mulched in climates with dry winters.
Endive, or chicories, are part of the chicory family. Endive are not related to brassicas, which make them another great option for plots that have had cabbage, broccoli, kale, or chard during the summer.
Cut heads off at the base and mulch over the remaining stump to prevent freeze damage.
Remove mulch as nighttime temperatures warm up to promote new leaf growth. Endive may bolt after the first frost of the season, but this second growth period could give you a few weeks of spring greens.
Special Instructions: Endive likes to be moist, so make sure you mulch these plants and irrigate them well before the first frost.
Kale is a common winter salad green that is full of vitamins and minerals. It’s also part of the brassica family, which means you have to be strategic about where you plant winter crops.
Plant kale in beds that have not been used for other brassicas during the summer. Kale likes full sun and rich soil, so mix in a few inches of compost before planting.
Special Instructions: Kale is prone to a nematode that attacks brassicas, so do not plant kale in the same plot as broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, cabbage, bok choy, or turnips.
Leeks are in the allium family, which makes them a close relative of onions, chives, and garlic. Blanch the stalk to increase the harvestable portion of the plant. When leeks are close to the mature size, pile 4” – 6” of soil around the base of the stem to block sunlight.
This will cause the leaves to turn white and elongate the edible portion of the plant. Harvest leeks as needed; the plants may go dormant during the winter, but they will start growing again as the weather warms up.
Special Instructions: Blanch leeks 2-3 weeks before harvest by piling soil or mulch around the stems. This will create an elongated white portion of the stem.
Lettuce is a popular choice for winter vegetable gardens for one important reason: it’s not a brassica. While there are other non-brassica options, lettuce has more varieties and it is more reliable for winter production.
Lettuce can tolerate soils low in nutrients, which makes it a good option for plots that grew heavy feeders during the summer, like tomatoes or melons.
However, this also makes lettuce one of the least nutritious salad greens.
Special Instructions: Use succession planting to have a wide variety of mature and baby greens.
Mizuna is a spicy brassica with lacy leaves that can tolerate poor soils better than kale or cabbage. Mizuna may regrow for a few weeks in the spring before going to seed. Add mizuna to salads, stir-fry, and even soups to add a mild spicy flavor.
Special Instructions: Mizuna is a good option for clay soils as long as there is enough organic matter to create consistent drainage.
Onions are a versatile crop with a long shelf life. For full onions, plant seeds early to allow enough time for the bulb to form.
Once the onions are mature, they will stay good in the soil until you need them. Spread a layer of mulch over the onion plot to make sure the ground doesn’t freeze so you can pull up the bulbs easily.
Special Instructions: Onions will have larger bulbs if they are spaced farther apart, and smaller bulbs if they are packed together. Spacing- not timing- determines the size of the bulb.
Winter peas are tender and crisp, but they may not last long. Peas are one of the only fruiting winter vegetables that handle cooler temperatures, but they must be planted in time to flower and produce seed pods before the first frost.
Once the Persephone Period begins, flowers will not produce new seed pods. For larger crops of winter peas, plant winter varieties in succession until 8 weeks before the first frost.
Radicchio sounds like it is related to radishes, but looks like it’s related to cabbage. Neither is true. In fact, radicchio is a very close cousin of endive.
Radicchio is a red vegetable with a spicy, sharp, bitter flavor that is slightly milder during the winter. Radicchio is not a brassica and it tolerates poor soil, so you can plant it almost anywhere in the garden as long as it gets enough light.
Special Instructions: Mulch around the base of harvested plants to preserve crowns for an additional spring harvest after the weather warms up.
Radishes are one of the easiest winter vegetables to grow. The seeds are large, the plants are tough, and you can sprinkle them throughout the garden to fill in small bare spots. Radishes are brassicas, so don’t plant them in the same plot as other cole crops.
Once the weather warms up, radishes that weren’t harvested will bolt and produce large seed heads. Try adding the seed pods to salads or stir fries for a spicy crunch.
Special Instructions: Winter radish varieties may tolerate cooler temperatures and have a sweeter flavor.
Scallions are a variety of onion that grows small, white bulbs and long, green leaves. Plant seeds in small pockets around other plants to ward off pests.
Cut off leaves and leave the bulb in the ground for new spring growth, or pull up the plant to use the more flavorful bulb.
Special Instructions: Plant scallions close together and transplant deeper than onions to form an elongated, white stem.
Spinach is a highly-nutritious brassica. Baby greens are tender and sweet, but they get stringy and bitter as they mature.
Plant spinach in succession until 4 weeks before the first frost to get a variety of leaf sizes. As with other brassicas, do not plant spinach in the same plot as kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc.
Special Instructions: Plant spinach in succession until 4 weeks before the first frost. This will ensure a variety of mature and baby greens.
18. Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is a colorful leafy green that packs a nutritious punch. Mix a few inches of compost into the seedbed before planting to increase moisture retention and replenish nutrients after summer production.
Chard may regrow in the spring after the weather warms up, so leave the bases in the ground and cover with a few inches of loose mulch to protect them from freezing.
Special Instructions: Although chard is a cool-weather crop, seeds may germinate faster with a heat mat.
Tatsoi is the new-and-improved bok choy. Chefs and growers say it is superior in every way, which makes it difficult to find.
Tatsoi is an excellent winter crop, and it provides a unique flavor to salads and other dishes. This Asian green is becoming more popular, so you can order tatsoi seeds from a few major seed companies.
Special Instructions: Plant in succession for a variety of mature and baby greens. Tatsoi benefits from a coldframe or hoophouse.
Turnips are close relatives of radishes, and they are just as easy to grow. As with other winter root crops, make sure the top foot of soil is loose, and mix in a few inches of compost before planting.
Turnips are brassicas, so don’t plant them with radishes or other cole crops. Sprinkle turnip seeds among lettuce or onions and pull them up as you need them.
Special Instructions: Till soil 6” – 12” deep before planting turnips to ensure good root development.
Tips For Harvesting Winter Vegetables
Winter veggies are more difficult to harvest than summer veggies, although there are a few simple steps that can make it an easier process.
Root Crops Can Be Difficult To Harvest If The Soil Freezes
If the soil around a bulb or root freezes, the plant may rot from constant moisture, or become stuck inside the frozen topsoil.
Avoid frozen topsoil by using a few inches of dense mulch before the first frost. Wait until a warm fall afternoon when the plot has had a few hours of direct sunlight, and put 3”-4” of straw, shredded paper, or leaf litter onto the plants.
You can break the rule of mulching with winter gardens and mulch right up to the stems, as long as the mulch isn’t too moist. You may need to construct a small fence or barrier to keep mulch from blowing away.
Mulch will provide insulation against freezing temperatures, and it will help the roots absorb moisture and nutrients longer than unprotected plants.
Winter Greens Do Not Grow Back, So Harvest Wisely
Most leafy crops will regenerate new leaves after a light harvest, which keeps the plants in production and prevents premature bolting. However, winter greens will not regenerate, so plant a few extra leafy crops and be careful about how much you harvest at one time.
Remember- winter greens will not regrow, but they also don’t bolt or become bitter, so you only need to harvest as much as you will use in a few days.
Treat Winter Veggies As Though They Are Growing In Nature’s Refrigerator
Winter vegetables- especially vegetables with a thick layer of mulch- are in stasis during the Persephone Period. As long as they have good air circulation and plenty of direct light, plants should stay in a harvestable state for the entire winter.
Many Winter Veggies Are Biennial, And Some May Regrow As Days Begin To Lengthen
Some leafy greens, like kale and Swiss chard, may put forth a burst of new growth as the Persephone Period ends and the temperatures warm up.
Be quick, though- these same plants are prone to premature bolting, and you may only have a few weeks of harvest before the plants become tough and produce flower stalks.
Winter vegetable gardens are an excellent way to challenge your gardening know-how while increasing the efficiency of your annual veggie plot. For a fun twist, plant colorful edibles, like purple kale or rainbow chard, into your landscape to provide some winter interest.
Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.