Growing your own winter vegetable transplants

Story by Darren Sheriff

I know, I know, it is just getting to be summer … you probably haven’t even gotten your Fourth of July plans solid yet, but ‘tis the season to think winter veggies. You will want or need to start planning ahead so that your winter crop is off to a good start. The Carolinas fall into basically two growing Zones – 7 and 8 – yet the crops will pretty much be the same, and there are just a couple of weeks difference in average first frost dates.

In North Carolina, your average first fall frosts are usually expected toward the end of October. For the South Carolina folks, you guys are a few weeks later; your first fall frost is usually around the middle of November. Either way, you should be getting your ground ready in August/September for October plantings of beets, broccoli, carrots, kale, peas, lettuce, radish, and spinach. You lucky Zone 8 folks can add brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower to your list.

You can start your winter vegetables 12-14 weeks before your first expected frost. Just a tray with some humidity and a little cooler than it is outside will suffice. Photo by Darren Sheriff.

What and How to Prep
One of the keys to winter vegetable gardening is adding organic matter or fertilizer to the soil prior to planting. You will want to prep your winter vegetable garden this way because many of the soil microorganisms aren’t as active during the colder weather. This reduced microbial activity will affect how the plants grow and take up nutrients, so, amending the soil will ensure that nutrition is readily available to your plants roots. You may want to consider using mulch or some kind of ground cover to help keep the soil a little warmer during the growing season. Thinking this through and having it in place before you plant will save you from a huge headache later.

Transplants or Direct Seeding
Each vegetable has its own preferred method of planting, whether it is transplanting from seed you started earlier, or direct seeding into the ground. Spinach and most of your other leafy vegetables (kale, cabbage, and lettuce) prefer direct seeding. These autumn sowings will keep you supplied with tender young leaves throughout winter and with regular harvesting it actually could continue to produce well into early summer. This direct seeded list will also include your peas, carrots, radishes, turnips and beets, though I have seen beets successfully transplanted if they are young. Plants that you should look specifically for transplants include brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower.

When you start your seeds indoors for fall planting, always, always, always make sure you tag them. Even if you only plant one vegetable, there is a good chance you will forget what it is. If you put the date you planted them that will also be helpful in the future. Photo by Darren Sheriff.

When to Start Them
Because of the summer heat, most of these plants that make great cooler weather winter gardens cannot be started outdoors; this is where your transplants come in. Knowing when to start the seeds indoors is actually fairly easy, just count back 12-14 weeks from the first typical frost date for your area. When it comes to direct seeding, read the package, they will have the dates for your area when you should plant.

Why Bother Growing Vegetables in the Winter
Other than the obvious, because it saves money, tastes better, and it gives you an excuse to work outside, you have a lack of pests and diseases. Once the temperatures fall, many of the warm-weather pests and diseases will disappear. Yes, the cool-season pests may appear, such as slugs and aphids, but the pace of cold-weather vegetable growing is much slower so it makes staying on top of these problems a little easier. Winter vegetable gardens do not need as much water as their summer counterparts, since the winter rains will arrive, hopefully, to help. Also, being the plants don’t grow as quickly, the water needs actually diminish. You should rely on soaker hoses and drip irrigation if possible for the most efficient watering; these will deliver water directly to soil.

Always make sure that you keep checking your rutabagas and turnips so that they do not turn into monsters. These were grown for a tad too long, but ended up being very tasty despite their size. Photo by Darren Sheriff.

Some Final Thoughts
Try successive plantings of quick growers, such as leaf lettuce, beets, spinach, and radishes. If you space the plantings out over a few days to weeks, you will have various stages of growth, which will result in more to harvest. 

Certainly, don’t be afraid to try planting some of these crops a little later than recommended. While it is a bit risky, Mother Nature always has the last say – the rewards can outweigh the risks, especially if she happens to be in a good mood. There is no hard rule that says that one type of plant will grow or fail outside of its hardiness zone and it may often be worth an occasional experiment, especially with the climate changing, to try something out of the ordinary now and again.

This last tip can save you a ton of time in the future. Keep a record of what you planted and when. Then see what succeeded or what failed, this will help you do better in planning when it comes time to be ordering seeds.

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