Winter Crops for Subtropical Gardens

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

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.

Most brassicas only require 60 to 80 days to mature, so it’s sometimes possible to get two crops from them. Mustard is a fast-growing crop that is generally ready in 30 to 45 days, so successive sowing can extend the harvest throughout winter into early spring. The most frost-tolerant brassica choices include kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards, followed by cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.

Salad greens often flourish in mild winter weather. One of the best things about growing greens is that they don’t require a lot of space, so you can grow them in containers on the porch. This makes them perfect for apartment dwellers and others with limited gardening space. Another great thing about these greens is that they grow quickly, so you can make successive sowings.

Peas are my absolute favorite crop for winter gardening. I love sugar snap peas and snow peas. They thrive in cooler weather and produce for weeks, providing large harvests for freezing, canning, or even eating fresh off the plant. Pea plants also make a fantastic cover crop because rhizobacteria that live in their roots take inert atmospheric nitrogen present in the soil and make it available to the pea plant, which itself becomes a source of nitrogen to other plants after it decomposes. After your peas stop producing, simply turn them into the soil to provide a good nitrogen boost for your spring garden. If you lack the space for large vining cultivars, there are many different bush peas available. Some dwarf cultivars, such as ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Kelvedon Wonder,’ even grow well in containers.

Root crops, such as beets, turnips, radishes, and carrots, are also ideal for the winter garden. Turnips and beets typically mature within 50 to 70 days. Full-size carrots will mature within 60 to 80 days, while small baby-type carrots, such as ‘Little Finger,’ will mature in 50 to 60 days. Radishes are usually ready within a month. These quick, easy crops grow well in the cooler temperatures of winter and bolt as temperatures rise. Successive sowings can extend the harvest.

Perennial herbs are another great choice, because you can continue to harvest from them as the cooler temperatures of fall and winter trigger them back into active growth cycles after the heat of summer. Rosemary is evergreen in areas with mild winters. Oregano, lemon balm, marjoram, thyme, chives, and even some of the hardier cultivars of sage can continue producing new growth all winter when grown in a protected area.

Our autumn months and early winter months are perfect garden weather. After burning all summer, it’s time to take every opportunity to get outside and enjoy the milder temperatures. We can also take advantage of the beautiful weather to extend our harvest. By choosing hardier types of crops, you can harvest fresh food all winter too.

Try these recipes for cool-season crops:

• Chicken and Root Vegetable Casserole
Sautéed Snow Peas

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.