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winter gardening

As I sit here just before Christmas with the beginning of winter just around the corner it seems like I should be saying BRRRR and be snuggled up next to my fireplace with a warm cup of tea as I write this month’s issue of Strong Roots. But the Florida truth is I am sitting at my desk in shorts with doors open drinking a glass of ice tea. It is the time of year that makes living in Florida worth all the months of heat and humidity. At least that is what I keep telling myself.

Never the less we are prone to frost and freezing in our area that comes and goes just to remind us it is winter. With all the heat loving/cold sensitive plants that grow around here we need to make plans to break out the blankets and towels and whatever is big enough to cover our sensitive plants. But what do you do when you need to protect something larger like a bed of vegetables? After all we do live in an area where gardening is not just a spring/summer event.

On the farm we have a variety of ways to protect our crops from cold even down into the twenty degree range. Some of these methods may fit your needs and some will not be practical, but I thought I would go over some ways that we protect our sensitive crops.

Our first method is to plant mostly cold tolerant crops. Many vegetables can tolerate our Florida winters with little to know extra protection. Most of the brassica family including cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi do well in cool weather and suffer little is any damage in a mild freeze. Spinach is a cold warrior and laughs in the face of a freeze. Most root crops will be fine safely snuggled in the warm earth. When choosing your winter seed you also want to look for the more cold tolerant ones. Most seed companies will give a comparison of cold and heat tolerances on their websites. I recommend Johnny Select Seeds. They do a good job in this area.

But what do we do when we still want to grow cold sensitive crops in the fall/winter season such as beans and tomatoes. After all it would not be Florida without fresh tomatoes in the winter. So what do we do then? First we plant so we can get the harvest in before the first freezes. Beans love heat and even a frost can kill them off. So we plant early and then harvest until the first frost or freeze. Then we take then out and wait until the last frost in early march and replant. In other words we don’t fight Mother Nature. The second thing we do is we shelter them in greenhouses. But this can be an expensive proposition even for a small greenhouse in a home garden. So the next best thing is what is called a low tunnel. This is a cheap and easy way for any home gardener to shelter their veggies of sensitive plants in the winter.

To build a small low tunnel you can use anchor pins such as 2 foot long rebar rods or half inch electrical conduit and ½ inch PVC pipe for the frame. You drive the anchors Low Tunnel Garden Prep2about 1 foot into the ground at the edges of the garden bed about every 6 to 8 feet. Then you fit the PVC over the anchors. The ½ PVC pipe is flexible enough that you can bend it easily. If it is a narrow bed you may need to cut the pipe in length. You only need to make it high enough to leave about a foot of space above the plants. On a long tunnel of more than 10 feet you may want to run a pipe along the top to steady the ribs and tie it together.

We cover our tunnels with commercial frost cloth that is readily available from greenhouse suppliers in Apopka but it comes in 300 feet rolls. So if you don’t need that much I recommend using sheet plastic or tarps. You can anchor the covering in a variety of ways such as long nails or ground cloth staples. But if you use plastic you need to remove it each morning to prevent the plants from cooking in the sun. Most of the supplies I have mentioned can be bought at your local box store like Lowes or Home Depot.

Finally, if we face a really cold night below 30 degrees I recommend throwing a couple of 60 watt lights or a string of Christmas lights under the cover for heat. Remember this is the one time you don’t want to be green wise and use LED lights. They don’t generate enough heat to protect the plants. I hope this makes gardening in the winter a bit easier and enjoyable for you. Until next month stay warm and remember that today is a good day to have a good day.