Winter gardening on Martha’s Vineyard

An example of tunnel gardening. — Photo by Dan Sternbach

Autumn is here. Up until the 1950s, for people in rural areas, and many Islanders too, the close of the growing season meant resuming a diet of canned and root vegetables. Today though, with forethought it is unnecessary to kiss goodbye fresh, homegrown vegetables, especially healthful greens.

Perhaps the most important point to emphasize about winter gardening is that crops are not sown in winter, merely grown-on. The key to successful winter gardening is knowing the average date of the first fall killing frost in your garden, for example, early November here in my garden. Then seed your winter crops early enough to let them reach full maturity by then.

A small greenhouse is an invaluable asset for this. Starting flats of seedlings in a protected place insures their safety from slugs before their being transplanted in-ground for growing-on. Despite expert advice to the contrary, I sow flats of beets for transplant and find they grow very well; however, carrots must be sown in place.

Experiment with extending your season by adopting the techniques publicized by Eliot Coleman in several books, and others, such as print and online publications “Growing For Market” and “Mother Earth News,” for sustaining the harvest through the longest part of the winter. The print catalogue and web site of Johnny’s Selected Seeds (, click on Catalog Extras) is a go-to trove of information for cold season growers; these also supply many of the supplies needed.

The photograph of the rows of greens shows the exposure and spacing needed to accommodate the protective structures. Three rows, a space, another three rows, a space, etc. Each protective structure encloses a set of three rows. An open area with full-on sun exposure maximizes what there is of the dimmer winter sunlight. The protective structures are put in place over the plants later on in autumn, when temperatures drop and growth stops.

As currently used, many home gardens are snugged into tight quarters, or even planted in separate areas around a lot or property, posing a challenge to incorporating a set-up such as shown in these photos. If possible, reorganize the growing space to accommodate season extending structures more efficiently.

Ambitious do-it-yourselfers may consider enclosing an entire plot, or parts of it, with temporary greenhouses. Mail order companies, such as FarmTek, offer components that are easily put up, taken down, or moved, and variable in lengths and widths, and are ideal for the amateur grower. Their convenience is offset, however, by higher cost.

Winter specific crops

The list of crops that can be grown-on during Island winters is lengthening all the time, as climate change and crop selection and breeding for cold tolerance continue to open up possibilities.

A list of cool-season crops, taken from “The Backyard Homestead” (Storey Publishing), includes the following: salad greens, such as arugula, Chinese cabbage, corn salad, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, parsley, radicchio, and radishes; cooking greens, such as collards, kale, mustard greens, Asian greens such as tatsoi and pakchoi, and spinach; root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, parsnips, and turnips; and an assortment of others, such as broad beans, peas, leeks, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.

Cold frames, Quick Hoops™ and row covers

Having started and planted the cool season crops you want, you must protect them from damage of ice and snow, and also be able to get access to them when the ground is otherwise frozen. The photos illustrate setting up a growing situation with low “caterpillar” tunnels, using bent electrical conduit. The Quick Hoops™ system is a bender; the rest of the supplies are purchased separately: material for hoops and poly covering.

Smaller tunnels using floating row covers (“reemay”) over wire supports (hoop loops or coiled row cover wire) may be created in place over growing crops. The cover may be doubled up as winter approaches with an additional layer of poly. Methods of securing the cover vary from bricks, sandbags, or earth staples, to specialized colored pins that are easy to spot and remove. As with greenhouse structures, ventilation will be necessary to prevent disease. Institute accessible points for easy opening.

Planning for winter weather that affects the structure is wise; ordinarily we totally forget the garden come winter. Winter wind and snow loads are the most obvious concerns. Some growers have laid stakes with a length of rope threaded though over top of tunnels; other have installed hoops over the outside of the covers. Burying the edges of the covering with soil or securing it well at regular close intervals prevents it catching air and ballooning.

Seed sources for winter growing are Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco (with an online order deadline of Sept. 30, 2011), Seeds of Changes, High Mowing, and Territorial.

Abigail Higgins, of West Tisbury, writes the Garden Notes column for The Times.