Winter is for Gardening

The garden, fully planted
‘The garden, fully planted’
courtesy of ‘Boboroshi’

Outside is a view of the grip of winter, fitting more for Boston, Montreal, or Calgary than a typical Washington winter. The snow flies sideways and the cold is enough to make anyone think twice about joining a snowball fight. In light of this, you might think me crazy to state, emphatically, that winter is for gardening.

The trickle began a few weeks ago with a catalog from, followed by Lee Valley and Baker Creek. Suddenly it’s an explosion of the promise of summer: “ORDER YOUR SEEDS NOW!” “GET YOUR GARDEN READY!” they shout. The snow is up to my waist in parts of the yard. The garlic planted in the fall hibernating under straw and three feet of snow and ice. The roof was also full of stuff that shouldn’t be there I have to remove them before this the conditions worsen. Luckily, the telescopic ladder I got online from a review on Best of Tools came last week. Just in time for the next few days where I do not have much to do. Winter is a difficult time to do a lot of chores.

But this is exactly the time for gardening. If you want to start your own seeds and get your beds ready, this is the optimum time to be working your garden. Some of the things that I am going to talk about may be a bit late, but for future planning purposes, I will include them in this brain dump.


Now is the time to plan your garden. What are you going to grow? If possible, how long can it take potatoes to grow during such a season? For what I know during the mid-season, it takes about 3 months. I’d strongly recommend you look at either things you eat a lot of, or items you can’t find at local farmers markets and produce stands.

Succession planting

Succession planting is a technique that allows for multiple plantings in the same space to increase the yields of a limited space. If you have a planting of radishes (approx. 30 days to mature) you can plant other items in the same space. You can also utilize this with Companion Planting to derive beneficial effects of one plant on another, especially in regards to insect problems.

Photo courtesy of
‘Lapageria rosea seedlings’
courtesy of ‘peganum’

Order seeds

Between a rise in home gardening and a bad year last year for seed growers and savers alike, there is a seed shortage looming. If you want to be able to get your seeds you should be shopping for them now. We talked last year about where we got our seeds and I would add to that list the Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom varieties of seeds.

Prepare tools

Tools need sharpening and care in order to make them last a lifetime. You should have cleaned off and oiled any metal parts back in the fall, but it’s never too late to do a little treatment. You probably want to use some kind of wood oil on any wood handles to keep them from splitting over time. Now would also be a good time to get out that file and sharpen up the edges of your shovels, hoes, and whatnot. Sharp tools make all the difference in being able to work the soil easily.

Seed Starting

Starting your garden from seeds is the most cost-effective way to have a lot of plants and not pay a lot of dough. If you’re buying plants at a nursery, you’re going to be hurting in the pocketbook to do any significant plantings. You can read our guide from last spring on seed starting and planting. The last frost date for DC is April 23rd so you should plan your plantings based on that.

Photo courtesy of
‘Jay, proud of the composted mulch’
courtesy of ‘Hayes Valley Farm’

Mulch and Compost

If there weren’t 3 feet of snow covering my garden, I’d be out spreading various compost items such as straw and peat moss over the new bed areas that we’ll be using in the spring. I did plant some cover crops, such as Austrian Winter Pea and Hairy Vetch to act as green manures.

Actual Winter Gardening with Cold Frames and Greenhouses

You actually can keep growing all the way through winter with a few different low-tech solutions such as cold frames and hotbeds. These utilize natural processes such as composting and solar radiation to keep temperatures above freezing around plants.

You can also use a green house or a hoop house in your yard to keep things going. The greenhouse at Oatlands south of Leesburg had growing bananas, which was a fruit not seen in Virginia at all in the 1800s.

You can use artificial heating with various options, such as a barrel stoves or by using black 55 gallon water barrels which will absorb the heat of the sun during the day and keep the ambient temperature high overnight.

According to, Portable air conditioners work in the same way as refrigerators. They use a refrigerant to provide more cooling potential than most other outdoor cooling solutions. Some people see the exhaust hoses on portable air conditioners and figure the setup must be complicated.

Keep going

There’s lots of reading you can do on the Virginia Cooperative Extension and if you’re not up for your own garden, consider joining a local community supported agriculture program such as Bull Run Farm or Great Country Farms. You can find more options for farmers markets and CSA programs at Local Harvest.

John has lived in DC since attending CUA’s Architecture school starting in 1995. He is a UI/UX/Design guru for LivingSocial and also plays in numerous bands (Juniper Lane, Rotoscope, Boboroshi & Kynz) and loves hyping people on eating local food, sustainable human settlement patterns, gardening, and good old fashioned rock and roll and electronica. He runs the dirt lab (aka mega garden) for WeLoveDC, where he eats most of the proceeds.

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