Winter Sowing Plus a Cold Frame

A FREAK APRIL 1 SNOW STORM squashed my makeshift hoop house, but snow or no snow, I’ll still be eating winter sown lettuce and arugula tomorrow. I was able to grow greens in spite of the cold and snowy spring weather that has been a bit of a disappointment here in southern New Hampshire.

You may have read my Valentine’s day article about my options for growing lettuce and other salad greens in the winter. In the article, I compared growing lettuce inside under the lights to winter sowing lettuce. After looking at the two options, I decided to go with winter sowing because I didn’t have enough room for both greens and transplants under the lights. Now I’ve got a thick carpet of arugula and lettuce growing in containers that needs to be thinned. While I’ll only be eating micro greens thinned from winter sown containers, it will be the first fresh (not store bought) vegetables I’ve eaten since November.

I’ve also got endive and bunch onions growing in winter sown containers, but it’s not near time-to-harvest. In fact, the bunch onions that I started indoors later in the winter are much bigger than the winter sown onions. This is probably because we had such a long, cold, snowy winter here in southern New Hampshire.

Two Layers

To combat the cold, I used a trick adapted from Eliot Coleman’s book Four-season Harvest. Coleman uses row covers inside his hoop houses to grow vegetables when it’s cold. He believes that this two layer system increases the growing temperature to the point where it’s the same as moving your lettuce two USDA plant zones to the south. Coleman is a bright guy.

I used the same two layer tactic in a simpler, cheaper way. I put the seeds in winter sowing containers using the normal practice. Then I put the containers inside my cold frame, which abuts a south facing cement wall. This helped the greens germinate in spite of the low temperatures in March that were frequently in the single digits (Fahrenheit).

The arugula, which was from open pollinated seeds passed to me from my father in law, did best. The black seeded simpson lettuce did pretty well, too. I’ve got a second batch of winter sown arugula and romaine lettuce that I started at the end of March. (Is it still winter sown if the calendar says spring – even if there’s still a thick blanket of snow on the ground?) The seeds are just now starting to sprout.

If you try it

If you decide at some point in the future to use winter sowing containers inside a cold frame, keep in mind that the containers dry out very fast. You have to be careful that the temperatures inside the containers don’t get too high. I lost some lettuce  and onions because I didn’t water a couple of containers in time. Still … recycled milk jugs, left over organic potting soil, saved seeds … it’s a pretty inexpensive way to extend your harvest into winter in USDA Zone 5. There’s also no need for grow lights, making it a pretty green way to grow greens.

A container of organic greens cost $4, $5 or $6 in the grocery store, and there’s no comparison between home grown and store bought when it comes to taste and probably nutrients, too. Plus, depending on where you live, I’m sure it takes a ton of fossil fuels to transport the greens from the farm to your store. Of course, you have to be willing to water in the cold, which isn’t as pleasant as in the summer.     

Did you grow greens in the winter? Let us know how you did it by commenting below.

Related articles that might interest you:

1. Growing Lettuce in Winter
2. Five Tips for Starting Seedlings More Cheaply
3. Seven Eco-friendly Ideas for the Garden


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