Winter Crops for Subtropical Gardens

The mild winters of the subtropics make it easy to grow year-round with the right crop choices.

| Winter 2017-2018

  • Root crops are often sweeter after a light frost, and in subtropical climates, you can harvest them all winter long.
    Photo by Getty Images/Martin Poole
  • Beets produce edible greens in about 35 days and roots ready to harvest about a month later.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/ivannag82
  • Close-up of Brussels Sprouts Stalk Growing in Field
    Photo by Getty Images/GomezDavid
  • Add a pop of color to your winter garden with some 'Purple of Sicily' cauliflower.
    Photo by
  • Plant garlic cultivars (Allium sativum), such as 'Williamsburg Red,' in fall for a late spring harvest.
    Photo by
  • A light frost sweetens the leaves of 'Japanese Giant Red' mustard greens.
    Photo by
  • Peas (Pisum sativum) grow best in cool weather and can help add nitrogen to your soil.
    Photo by Getty Images/ksena32
  • With the right crop choices, winter can be a wonderful (and productive) time to garden in subtropical climates.
    Photo by Getty Images/cjp

The days are growing shorter, the temperatures are dropping, the leaves are falling, and gardeners are cleaning out their garden beds and tucking them in for the coming winter. A sense of accomplishment makes shiny jars filled with the preserved fruits (and vegetables) of our labors a beautiful sight. The season is over, and now we can rest, relax, and dream of next spring, while winter gently covers our garden beds with a blanket of snow.

OK, perhaps in temperate climates this beautiful tableau is a reality, but in subtropical climates we’re clearing out our summer gardens so we can replace them with winter gardens.

Here in Zone 9, we seldom get anything colder than a light frost. I won’t say “never,” but it’s highly unlikely that we experience any freezing temperatures. Our autumn weather consists of warm days and cooler nights, while our winter weather consists of cool to warm days with cold nights. Our spring weather can be unpredictable, with temperatures that fluctuate from 50 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 80 degrees the next, causing cool-season crops to bolt. We also have frequent flooding in spring, which can make growing some crops a challenge. Because our winter weather is consistent and provides ideal conditions for cultivating cool-season vegetables, it’s possible for gardeners in the subtropics to grow year-round.

Cool-Season Crops

In our climate, the first real cool spell generally comes in mid-October and signals that it’s time to begin winter planting. Here are the plants that I’ve found not only survive but thrive through our mild winters.

Alliums, such as garlic and onions, will have all winter and spring to grow if you plant them in fall, so you’ll be able to harvest them in late spring of the following year. For garlic, cover the bed with a good layer of mulch right after you plant your cloves. For onion seeds, wait until they sprout before mulching them in for the winter. Other alliums, such as bunching onions and leeks, are great winter crops as well. Bunching onions require cooler temperatures to prevent bulb formation, so they’re perfect for the subtropical winter garden. And by growing leeks during the winter, you can harvest before warmer spring temperatures cause them to flower and become bitter. Once your leek seeds sprout and grow to roughly the size of a pencil, mulch the bed, particularly around the base of the plants, so the white portion of the leek will grow longer. Leeks require approximately 120 days to mature, so if you plant them in October, they should be ready to harvest by March, just as warmer spring temperatures begin to arrive. Successive planting, beginning in October and ending in February, can ensure a continuous supply of these allium crops throughout winter.

Brassicas offer a wide array of cool-season candidates. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and mustard are all good choices to grow at this time of year because the cooler temperatures will keep them from bolting. You can simply direct sow the seeds into your prepared bed and mulch them in once the plants are established, or you can start seeds indoors in September so the plants are ready to set out in October.

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