Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Winter Garden, Sunlight Hours

Winter gardening seems strange to us because few people do it today. When you can go to the grocery store in January and buy fresh cantaloupes, strawberries, and tomatoes, why bother? Simply put, the food tastes so much better.  It is worth it to me for the wonderful flavor, extra nutrition, larger variety, and money savings.

Successful winter gardening involves planting the right plant, at the right time, in the right place and then harvesting it at peak season.  I can't do that.  Every year it seems the weather is different, my family needs are different, and how much garden work I can handle is different.  What has succeeded one year, has failed the next. I am NOT an expert, just a person who has failed miserably many times over.  What I can do, is share what has worked for me in hopes something might succeed for you.

My garden is located in plant hardiness zone 7a, lower middle Tennessee;  the winters here can be bitter cold, or not. I have discovered many winter hardy plants can survive brutal cold temperatures, blustery winds, and low sunlight; but, not all three at once.

The Problems:
1.  Bitter cold - well, short of building a heated greenhouse, this is not one I can solve.  What I can do is plant hardy varieties that can withstand, and thrive in freezing temperatures.
2.  Blustery winds - The wind is going to blow hard and will probably damage the plants.  Some type of protection can make all the difference in survival.
3.  Low sunlight - knowing the speed plants grow helps you know when to plant so you can plan for the best harvest.

With each type of food plant, there are many varieties and some can withstand colder temperatures better than others.  One way they endure is by changing their starches to sugars which protects the plant from freeze damage. This is good for us because the flavor changes from bitter to sweet.  They freeze during the bitterly cold weather then return to normal when the warming sun arrives. The secret is to choose the best survivors.

These are turnip greens in the early morning after a hard frost.  They look like they are ready to die, but as soon as the sun rises, they will spring back to life.

Turnip greens in the early morning after a hard frost.
This picture was made during the first part of December when they were still getting enough sunlight.  For me, turnip greens will only last through the middle of January.  They are not my favorite food so I am not willing to bother putting them under cover.  I try to pick them before they die.

The same plants in the late afternoon after a day of sunshine.
The most important factor with winter gardening seems to be the amount of sunlight the plants receive. Plants slow down as they get less and less sunlight, then go dormant.  For this reason, it is important to plant more food than you think you could possibly need.  In the summer, the vegetables are maturing rapidly and it is impossible to keep up with even one zucchini plant.  In the winter, it's more like walking outside to pick food out of your refrigerator.  It just sits there.

My sun times are as follows and how it affects my plants.

September 1st, 12 hours 56 minutes
This is the best time to plant seeds and the transplants which were started in the shade in August.  The ground is no longer blistering hot and anything sprouting will rapidly expand.

October 1st, 11 hours 49 minutes
During this month, the plants continue bursting in growth and you will wonder if you have planted too much. Don't worry.  It won't be excessive.

November 1st, 10 hours 41 minutes
Plants begin slowing down in growth as the sunlight lessens.  For me, Thanksgiving is a good time to harvest and cook many of the cool weather plants (then send the leftovers home with the company) before the freezes get them (the plants will freeze, not my guests).

December 1st, 9 hours 54 minutes
Most plants stop growing at less than 10 hours of sunlight.  By this time all growth has slowed and is almost stopped.  I watch the weather report closely.  We might have a warm month, or it could be bitter cold.  This is a month that could go either way so I get the hoop houses up.

December 21st, 9 hours 42 minutes
Winter solstice - shortest, darkest, saddest day of the year.  The only good thing about it is that now you can start looking forward to just a little bit more sunlight each day.

January 1st, 9 hours 45 minutes
Bitter, bitter cold, rains, and snows.  The plants under the hoop houses are just sitting there.  Those outside in the weather are suffering, looking terrible and most will die.

February 1st, 10 hours 25 minutes
Not much difference from January except that by this time so many of the plants have been harvested, the garden looks forlorn.  Toward the end of the month, you can see a little life begin to spring back into some of the plants.

March 1st, 11 hours 25 minutes
Yahoo!  Spring is on the way.  Anything that has survived the winter, will suddenly begin growing so fast you won't believe it.

It's deep in the winter now, but this is the time to dream and plan your spring, summer, fall, and WINTER gardens.  Below I have listed some of my posts that include information about my winter gardens.

First I shared thinning the summer garden in preparation for the winter garden.
Thinning the Winter Garden (2016)

This shows the importance of a cover and how much of a difference it made with my last year's (2015) garden
Winter Garden, Cover Up (2015 -2016)

Next, I shared what I planted in my 2016 garden and a list of some of the plants that can withstand cold weather.
Winter Garden, What is Growing? (2016)

This is how we (ok, Reese really did all the work)  covered up the fall/winter 2016 garden.
December's Garden, A Giant Cover Up (2016)

Each month I also post a running update of my garden's, successes and failures.  Hopefully, there will be something to encourage you to try something new.

Brussel Sprouts


  1. Wow! So much sunlight! By December we are getting twilight with a couple of actual hours of daylight in the beginning of the month and then losing it by the winter solstice. We get like no sunlight on the solstice, just a couple of hours of twilight. By about March the light is starting to come again, although February is usually not TOO bad on getting the light coming back. Mind you by summer we're having nearly 24 hours of daylight, so I love our summers for light :). I definitely need to get a greenhouse to grow a winter garden though, with some growth lights and heat in it. Looking forward to that one day, for sure.

    1. How do you keep from going crazy with so little sunlight? I can make it ok through January, but by February (now) I am getting stir crazy. Do other people in Alaska have winter greenhouses?
      I don't heat mine, obviously, but one year I used a grow light in the basement and was able to grow a few things. Remembering to water was my problem.

  2. Great photos, Jeannie! And I learned a lot about gardening. I even read a paragraph out loud to my colleagues on my lunch. :)

    1. Thank you, although I am glad you did it on your lunch hour. I would hate to be the reason you got fired.
      Wait a minute, does that mean I am being talked about behind my back?

  3. In our region we do not really have winter gardening. In autumn I take out knob celery and red beet and put them in a deep hole in the garden soil and cover it with dry leaves and gardening foil. So
    they do not freeze. On garden beds I have lamb´s lettuce under foil. Garden season here usually begins in the first week of March.
    You showed us very interesting pictures of your garden, Jeannie.
    I will send you some to your address later.

    1. Hello, this is Jeannie and I am reposting Christel's email message to me since I found it interesting. She sent pictures of her garden, which would not load up here in the comment section, some type of safety issue I suppose.
      It was odd looking at someone's garden on the other side of the world and seeing the same plants I am growing.
      I googled "knob celery" and I think it is celeriac root. Something I have never grown but would like to try.
      I think Christel should start her own blog so we can all look at her garden too!

      Hello, Jeannie

      It is quite mild today, 44 F.
      Winter garden is rather sad here. But we have lamb´s lettuce and
      knob celery and red beet, - and potatoes in the cellar.
      Carrots are very cheap, so I buy these. 4 kg cost about 90 cents.
      And I have quite a lot of garden vegetables in the freezer: Cauliflower, beans and spinach. I like to use these frozen vegetables in winter months, so I will have place when new vegetables come. The first one is always spinach. And in spring we eat lots of lettuce.

      I am very thankful for our computer. This gives me opportunities to see, how it´s on the other side of the world. So interesting!

  4. I planted a few things at the end of the summer. I haven't been able to harvest very much, although I got a lot of lettuce before hard winter hit. I don't have a hoop covering. I am getting used to a new garden, and am looking forward to seeing what I can get from this new one. I have high hopes that the onions will winter over, they still look fine. There is small, living spinach, green onions, carrots and beets that look alive. Time will tell. We are having another cold spell, but soon it will become spring-like around here. I love seeing your garden.

    1. And I enjoyed watching your garden last summer.
      It will be interesting to see how your new garden grows..if spring will ever get here.

  5. Oh so smart to keep some plants in the ground and just put a cover on them!