I love gardening which is why winter isn’t my favorite time of the year. With crummy temperatures, overcast skies and a foot of snow, gardening in the winter months is quite impossible. Those of us who live in cold northern climates can pretty much forget planting anything in the ground until the first of April.
Lucky for us die-hard gardeners, a greenhouse is one way to cheat nature at her own game. A greenhouse creates an artificial environment for growing both vegetables and flowers by keeping them toasty warm while providing them with the right amounts of both sunlight and humidity. If you’ve never tried winter gardening before, this hobby is a great way to get some winter exercise while growing veggies for the family.
1. Choose the right greenhouse style that works for you. Greenhouses come in all shapes and sizes, and practically every price range. If you are a small scale gardener, a portable solar greenhouse (learn more here) is a low cost solution that works well in moderate temperatures. Portable units run between $80-$150 and are suitable for use in zones 6b-10. A portable greenhouse is what I use because it’s something I can set up without enlisting the help of my husband. Most portable greenhouses have more than enough space for a nice collection of seedlings and a couple of people.
Serious gardeners or those gardening in more frigid winter climates may need something more substantial. Permanent greenhouse styles made of glass or thick plastics come in a wide range of styles and can be set up to accept some sort of heating unit to bring up internal temperatures. These start as low as $250 and can reach into the thousands of dollars. Popular options include :
~ The half gable or “lean to” green house which attaches to the side of a home or garage.
~ The barn style which looks like the traditional greenhouse most of us are used to seeing.
~ The dome greenhouse, designed to withstand the accumulation of snow. Dome greenhouses resemble the top half of a geodesic dome.
~ Hoop greenhouses which have grown in popularity in recent years. These simple to make greenhouses are made of loops of PVC which are covered with thick clear vinyl.
2. Assemble your supplies. In addition to a greenhouse, you’ll also need some basic supplies to begin and cultivate your winter garden. Greenhouse gardening is really not much different than container gardening and uses many of the same supplies. You’ll need things like pots and empty seed starter trays, hand tools, potting mix, a watering can & source of water, plant food, popsicle sticks (for labeling), garden gloves, and a grow light if you live in an area with overcast winter skies. I use a clamp lamp with a grow light bulb for my portable greenhouse; traditional hanging fixtures are also available at garden centers starting at $45 and up.
3. Be realistic about your choices of vegetable crops for winter gardening and what you want to accomplish. So you’ve got your greenhouse and all your supplies. It now comes down to the nitty gritty of what you want to grow in your greenhouse this winter.
I can’t tell you what to grow since only you can make those decisions. What’s worked for me however is to use my portable greenhouse to accomplish three winter gardening goals.
~ Get an early start on summer crops. In a short summer season such as mine, summer crops such as tomatoes and peppers don’t stand a chance without a little intervention. February 1 – March 1 is when these temperature sensitive crops are planted by seed in the greenhouse. By June 1st, the plants are 2-3 feet high and ready to be planted in the ground outdoors.
~ Plant some cool crops in your greenhouse for winter eating. February & March is also the time when a few cool weather crops such as spinach, lettuce, green onions, and radishes can be planted container-gardening style inside your greenhouse. These veggies grow to maturity is 3-5 weeks and are a great way to add fresh organic vegetables to a winter diet. If you’ve got the room, try climbing snap peas for a tasty winter greenhouse vegetable.
~ Bring dormant flowers and herbs back to life. To get as jump on my geraniums and herbs that have been dormant since November, I bring the plants inside the greenhouse in February. By the time the spring temperatures have warmed up, my geraniums and herbs are fully matured and ready to go outside.
Ultimately, the decision of what to plant depends on the amount of space you have to work with and the type of veggies that your family enjoys eating. With warm temperatures, plenty of light, and the willingness to experiment a little, you too will soon discover how fun and simple wintering gardening can be.
Additional resources by C. Jeanne Heida:
How to Save Your Geraniums over Winter.
Choosing the Right Size Container for vegetables.
How to Read the Back of a Vegetable Seed Packet.