These twenty winter vegetable garden tasks will keep you busy in the colder months and prepare the garden for the year ahead
We’re deep into winter, but that doesn’t mean that we have to stay inside, twiddling our green thumbs. There’s plenty to do to prepare for the vegetable gardening year ahead. Building hardscaping, planning what to grow, and where, and getting organized. There are even seeds that benefit from being sown now, under the warmth of grow lights. Use this list of winter vegetable garden tasks to get a head-start on this year’s garden and prepare for the harvests ahead.
1. Make newspaper plant pots
If one of your goals is to recycle more and useless plastic, make newspaper plant pots. The paper and ink are safe for growing plants, and the pots last just long enough before they begin breaking down. It works out well because by that time, you can plant, newspaper pot and all.
2. Build a grow-light system
Having a dedicated grow-light system gives you far more space to start seeds in winter. You can even use it to grow salad crops in the cold months. All you need to build one is a little space, shelves, and the right lights. My friend Rachel shares excellent tips on creating your own over here.
If all you have is a window sill, I’d recommend you get this clip-on grow light. I’ve used it for two years and love how it makes that space a better-growing place for seedlings. With it, you don’t have to worry about them becoming leggy as they reach for the light. The seedlings benefit from both natural daylight and supplemental light from above.
3. Harvest Winter Veg
Many kitchen gardeners focus on growing summer and autumn crops. If you plan ahead, you can have leeks, brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflowers, beets, parsnips, and other vegetables to harvest through the winter. An unusual and delicious winter vegetable that I’ve been growing for some years is the New Zealand Yam (oca).
One of my other favorites is purple sprouting broccoli. The earliest variety begins cropping in December with others following from January to May. They’re part of the brassica (or cole) family and are fairly winter hardy. The family also includes many varieties of cabbage and kale grown to be harvested in winter. Many root vegetables are hardy down to 25 °F (-2.2 °C) too, so if you’re in zones 8-11, you can leave them in the ground until needed.
4. Use pruned raspberry canes
Winter is when we prune raspberry canes. Mine are autumn fruiting varieties, so I cut them all down to about two inches from the ground. With summer fruiting, you only cut the old wood. Regardless, you’re left with a bundle of canes that’s usually burned or composted.
Instead of disposing of them, use them to make raspberry cane wattle edging. My first one lasted three years before I took it down. During that time, it helped keep the compost contained in the raspberry bed. Since the canes are hollow, they also provide homes for insect life.
5. Begin forcing rhubarb
Forcing rhubarb creates very early, tender stems of bright pink rhubarb. It’s much more of a thing in Britain, but I hope those of you in the USA and abroad give it a go too. Though you can use a traditional terracotta rhubarb forcing pot, placing a clean rubbish bin (garbage can) over your plant does the same thing. It warms the air and ground around the rhubarb and encourages it to grow up to a month earlier.
6. Build Birdhouses
Spring is around the corner and with it will be garden birds. You’re likely feeding them right now since many garden birds rely on our help for the winter. You can help them even more by building boxes for them to nest in. The video below shows how to make a simple wooden birdhouse. It’s a great activity for a rainy or snowy afternoon, and you could even paint them before installing them in the garden in March. While you’re at it, consider making other wildlife shelters too like these hedgehog homes.
7. Sow onion, chili, tomato, and eggplant seeds
Though you’ll need to hold off for most veg, some seeds do benefit from a very early start. Three of these include onions, chilis, tomatoes, and eggplant (aubergines). That’s because each needs a long growing season, and if you’re in a mild or cold climate, your plants might not have enough time to produce if you sow in spring.
If you’re starting seeds in winter, growing in a window sill won’t do unless you have a clip-on grow light. A dedicated seedling starting area is best, but if you have a bright and warm conservatory or sunroom, that will work too. Here’s more guidance on the earliest seeds to sow.
8. Deep Clean the Greenhouse
Before spring sowing and growing begins, deep clean the greenhouse. It gives you a chance to clean the glass, improving light, remove pests, and sanitize growing spaces. If you have problems with slugs, spider mites, or fungal infestations (plants, not your toes!) then that’s even more reason to tackle this as early as possible.
9. Plant bare-root strawberries
Most people who plant strawberries will have purchased them in pots in spring. Those in the know are wise enough to think ahead and order them bare-root. Bare-root strawberries arrive in the winter and need planting then too. If it’s mild enough, you can plant them directly in the soil, but it’s sometimes better to plant them in pots and grow on in the greenhouse first. Bare-root strawberry plants are far cheaper than potted plants, and you’ll have a lot more choice in variety too.
10. Build raised beds, paths, and other hardscaping
Winter is the perfect time to build projects for the garden. Create raised garden beds, garden paths, rose arbors, sheds, or plant supports like berry trellises. Trust me, it’s stressful to get these types of projects done when you’re trying to grow crops at the same time.
11. Order bare-root fruit bushes and trees
It’s not just strawberries that you can order bare-root. Add more perennial fruit bushes and trees to the garden in winter too. You can get apples, pears, currants, gooseberries, and more for a much better price if you order bare-root. They’ll arrive looking like dead sticks, but don’t worry, the plants are dormant and just waiting to break into bud and leaf.
12. No greenhouse or polytunnel? Get one
Gardening without a greenhouse is possible, but growing with one is a joy! My current greenhouse is a vintage model and came with our house, and I’ve had a heavy-duty plastic Palmram model before too. I sold it when we bought the new house and the new owner took it away on the back of a trailer. You can get a greenhouse from a specialist company, and I’ve seen many for sale on Facebook, eBay, and other places. Greenhouses, and polytunnels for that matter, come in various sizes and prices ranges, but another option is to build one. My friend Barb and her husband built theirs from recycled windows and she shares how they did it in the video above.
13. Plant an Edible Hedge
If you have enough land, you cannot go wrong with planting an edible hedge. They’re great boundary plantings, provide habitat for wildlife, and with very little work on your part, will produce crops of nuts, berries, and fruit. It’s a win-win situation. We have a ‘Gin Makers Hedge‘ planted at our allotment, kindly donated by Hopes Grow Nurseries. It arrived two years ago as bare-root shrubs and I dug them in late February. Two years on it’s beginning to fill in with various types of wild rose, sloes, elderberries, wild cherries, wild pear, and more. There are other nurseries out there that can supply bare-root edible hedge plants too, but you’ll need to order and plant them in winter.
14. Attend a Seed Swap
Think of all the seed packets you’ve purchased in your life. Have you used all the seeds or have had to throw some away? Seed swaps are a fabulous way to give them away and take other seeds home that you actually need. That way seeds don’t get wasted and you save money. These community garden events are popping up regularly these days and the one I organize has been going strong since 2011. If you can’t find a seed swap in your area, use my tips to start your own. It’s fun, and I guarantee that you’ll have more than a few people interested in coming.
15. Chit potatoes
Although you can plant potatoes that are not chitted, some people swear by giving them this head start. Chitting means setting your seed potatoes in a bright place for about four-to-six weeks before planting them out. Setting them in egg cartons seems to be a popular method to keep them from rolling off the table. Just like in your kitchen cupboard, the potatoes will begin to form sprouts. Plant them with the sprouts orientated the right way and you’ll see green shoots earlier than if you hadn’t chitted them first.
16. Clean your pots
If you think your greenhouse gets mucky after a gardening season, think about your pots, modules, and trays. It’s not “dirt” that you should be worried about, but bacteria, viruses, fungi, and pests. Give them a good scrub using these tips from my pal Stephanie at Garden Therapy.
17. Clean your tools
Most of us keep our tools in reasonably good condition, but aren’t disinfecting and oiling them throughout the year. Winter is a great time to wipe them down with alcohol, buff any rust off, and oil them with good oil. Some people use WD-40, but to keep it more natural use natural vegetable oil. Olive oil works and boiled linseed oil is a favorite since it dries quickly.
18. Tidy the Shed
While you’re cleaning your pots and tools, empty the shed and give it a full clean too. I recommend giving the Marie Kondo method a go here and have an entire piece dedicated to how you can use its principles in the garden.
19. Sprout seeds
Homegrown greens can be sparse unless you have a grow-light system or warm greenhouse or polytunnel. There’s another way to get your greens though — by sprouting seeds. All you need is a large glass jar with lid, water, seeds suitable for sprouting, and a little time to have fresh salad sprouts any time of the year. You can also sprout seeds in other containers, but jars are by far the easiest way.
20. Garden planning
Lastly, plan your garden. What you’d like to grow, where you’d like to put it, and when you need to sow seeds. Browse seed catalogs and Instagram for ideas. Use a garden journal or online planner if you’d like, but organizing now will keep you on track in the summer. It’s armchair gardening at its best, and the perfect winter gardening task for days when it’s just too cold, windy or snowy to want to venture outdoors.