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5 vegetables to keep your garden harvest going into the winter

“I always remember to plant my garlic in October when we’re getting ready to celebrate vampires, witches and ghosts,” says Aerin Peak, owner of Homegrown and Harvested. (iStock)

Empty garden beds look so sad during the winter months. Hiding under layers of compost, mulch and the occasional blanket of snow, they sit forlornly, simply taking up space. But these vacant plots are missed opportunities. With a little effort, some simple equipment and the right plantings, gardens can continue to flourish through the darkest days of the year.

“Gardening in the winter is the easiest gardening that you’ll ever do,” says Caleb Warnock, a winter gardening specialist and owner of SeedRenaissance, a company specializing in heirloom varietals that’s based in Alpine, Utah. There are fewer weeds, most pests have decamped for the season, diseases are almost nonexistent and plants require little to no watering, because the ground is frozen.

One thing you will need to do, though, is install protective covers for your beds before the season starts. Mary Buri, founder of Mars Kitchen Garden, a gardening design, installation and maintenance company in Westchester County, N.Y., suggests purchasing or building cold frames. (They’re essentially unheated, miniature greenhouses that sit on the ground or attach to raised beds.) They trap heat to increase the temperature inside while insulating plants and soil from the most bruising elements of winter weather. There are plenty of easy-to-assemble kits available, or you can build DIY versions using wood or flexible PVC piping for the frames, which are then covered with heavy-duty plastic.

Don’t open your cold frame if the temperature is below freezing, during a snowstorm, first thing in the morning, or in the evening or beyond, Warnock says. “Open them after there has been at least a couple of hours of daylight, even if it’s a cloudy winter daylight,” he says. “Then close them up again, so there will be a couple of hours of sunlight to warm them back up again.”

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The only other work required is picking what to grow and planting at the right time. Here are five expert-recommended vegetables that will ensure your beds stay useful throughout the winter.

Arugula

“It’s a wonderful season-extending vegetable for beginners to grow,” Buri says. “So are other greens, such as tatsoi, bok choy and lettuces.” In early fall, sow seeds directly into beds, and water them every couple of days. The greens don’t need to be covered in the D.C. region until later in October, when the first frost typically hits. Roughly four weeks after planting, begin harvesting the biggest leaves, but never take the entire plant, allowing it to continue producing. Keep sowing new seeds every couple of weeks (known as succession planting) to ensure a rolling series of salads throughout the winter. If the plants suffer frostbite, don’t clip the greens while they are still icy, because they will be mushy. Instead, Buri says, wait until midday, after the sun has thawed the arugula, to harvest and enjoy the leaves.

Carrots

Carrots taste even sweeter in the winter, because the cold transforms their starches into sugars. (Eat the greens, too. They’re rich in minerals and vitamins.) Seed the root vegetables two to three months before the first anticipated frost of the year; Buri recommends a July planting for gardeners in the D.C. area.

As the carrots begin to sprout, thin them out, so they aren’t overcrowded. “Don’t worry: These baby carrots don’t need to go to waste,” says Aerin Peak, owner of Homegrown and Harvested, a garden-coaching service in Silver Spring, Md. She loves giving those mini carrots to her kids as snacks or throwing them into stir-fries. As temperatures dip, top the carrots with a heavy protective layer of mulch, about 18 inches deep. Even if the ground freezes, so you’re unable to pull out the carrots, the vegetables will be fine until spring, though you should harvest them after the first thaw, or they will become mushy.

Garlic

“I always remember to plant my garlic in October when we’re getting ready to celebrate vampires, witches and ghosts,” Peak says. She advises using locally sourced organic garlic cloves for the best results. Place cloves roughly six inches apart, approximately two inches deep, in well-tilled soil primed with lots of compost. The grittier, nubby side of each clove goes down, with the pointy end upward. Make sure to cover them well with mulch. The garlic will take up space until around July, when it will be ready to harvest, so consider placing the aromatic alliums in a dedicated bed or in free-standing towers. Bonus: If you grow a hardneck variety, in the spring you can harvest the scapes, the plants’ looping green tops, which can be used similarly to garlic and are great in pesto.

Kale

If you’re lazy, Buri says, super-low-maintenance kale is the crop for you. Make sure to pick a cold-resistant variety, such as lacinato, White Russian or Vates Blue Curled Scotch. To be rewarded with a winter harvest in the Mid-Atlantic, plant seeds about ½ inch deep and one inch apart in compost-boosted soil in late autumn. Water the plants until the first frost; it’s best to surround their bases with straw or mulch to hold in moisture. Like carrots, kale converts its starches into sugars when it gets cold, so you’ll be treated to sweet leaves packed with vitamins and minerals.

Brussels sprouts

For the best chance of success in the Mid-Atlantic, begin growing Brussels sprouts seeds indoors in July, then transplant your starts in August into a well-tilled bed with good drainage. Space plants about 18 inches away from one another in rows about three feet apart. Cover the base of the plants with plenty of straw or mulch to insulate their root systems. For gardeners in the Mid-Atlantic, Peak recommends planting starts in two phases — in August and at the beginning of fall — to ensure two crops: one around Christmastime, and the other at the start of spring. To obtain the freshest, most tender crop, harvest the sprouts from the bottom of the plant first, and work your way upward as the topmost sprouts mature.

Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. His website is nevinmartell.com. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @nevinmartell.

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