Saturday, December 19, 2009

Quick Winter Tip from My Favorite Vegetable Gardening Book: How To Help Protect Plants in Below Freezing Weather

Greek Oregano in the Greenhouse Ready for this Greek Slow Roasted Lamb Recipe

I love books. I love them so much that when I moved from northern California to Missouri 15 years ago, I chose to sell most of my beautiful Art Deco furniture in order to have more space in the moving truck for vintage collectibles (like some of the treasured contents of my potting cabinet) and books.

I especially love cookbooks, and while I admit to hardly ever (or never) using many of the ones I own, I rationalize their purchase like this: if I discover just one fantastic recipe in a cookbook, that to me is worth the entire cost of the book. The rest of the pages are simply a bonus.

I don't have nearly as many gardening books as I do cookbooks, but if I applied that same rule to them, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith would probably be worth about two thousand dollars. This book, which is all about Ed's high-yield W-O-R-D system: Wide rows, Organic methods, Raised beds, Deep soil, is packed with smart and helpful tips, and after 9 years of owning it, I still learn something new (or relearn something I've forgotten) pretty much every time I pick it up—which is a lot.

Having the Internet at your fingertips when searching for gardening help is great, but having one really reliable book you can turn to first is often even better, and for me it's The Vegetable Gardener's Bible. If what I'm looking for isn't in it, something else always is—like this little sidebar tidbit titled But They'll Freeze! about keeping plants in a greenhouse alive during even the coldest winter nights:

In December, January, and February, night temperatures in our greenhouse dip well below 0°F (-17°C), and all the plants therein freeze solid. If we pick them while they're frozen, the result more closely resembles mush than salad. But if we wait until the sun has warmed the soil and thawed the leaves, we have a salad that has even more depth of taste than any the summer can produce. The secret to this success is that you not water the plants during the coldest times of the winter. If there's too much moisture in the cells, they burst, and the plant will not recover. We stop watering in mid-December and don't start again until mid-March.

He's right about the frozen solid plants. More than once I've gone out to the garden on a really cold morning, sure that everything was history. Now I realize it's better not to look. I simply wait until the sun warms up the plants and brings them back to life before I check on anything—and it's amazing how well they can recover.

I'd actually forgotten the part about not watering at all during winter until rereading But It'll Freeze! just now. I do water my plants in the greenhouse sparingly this time of year—especially the ones in pots—but if I know we're in for a real cold snap, I make sure the soil is dry. And it really does work.

You can apply this theory to some extent with plants growing out in the open, although rain or snow can put a damper (ha) on things. Heavy clear plastic sheeting, either draped directly over beds or on top of some sort of simple structure such as these mini greenhouses, can help protect plants as well as keep them dry.

I've raved about The Vegetable Gardener's Bible before (you can read my full review here), and over the years I've heard from many of you who purchased it on my suggestion and like it as much as I do. I still highly recommend this book for both beginning and seasoned gardeners.

Do you have a favorite gardening book or winter gardening tip?

© Copyright 2009, the defrosted and still edible foodie farm blog where the early bird may get the worm, but the late gardener saves herself a lot of despair on icy mornings.


  1. I didn’t know this about not watering on cold days. This is great information. Although I have noticed that soil doesn’t need watering as it doesn’t dry at all.
    I will try to find this book and read it.

  2. I've just been to the veg plot to get a cabbage and the poor broad bean seedlings look a bit frozen... so I'd better pretend I haven't seen it!

  3. This is interesting... I used to work at a greenhouse/garden center in the spring and early summer for several years - when there was a frost forecast, the owner always made sure that we watered everything that was outside really good before covering them up for the night. She said that the watering protected them more.

    Is there a difference between over-wintering plants and just protecting them from a night's frost? Or was she just totally wrong?

  4. A greenhouse is one of my life dreams. Six acres, and we appear to have no suitable spot for a greenhouse. How is that possible?

    I usually reference some massive tome called "The Gardening Encyclopedia." I think that's what it's called, anyway. It was here before I got here, and I never paid much attention to the title, actually.

  5. Thanks for the book tip, just ordered it. Here in rainy Oregon we don't have much choice about watering anything outside, although that does give me some ideas for the cold frame I was thinking of building...

  6. That makes sense. I never thought about it, but I have green onions, cabbage plants, and my oregano's all come back after a hard freeze. I don't water them in the winter, mostly because it's soooo cold, but that must be it. They recover, and grow strong. I'll have to check out this book. Thanks.

  7. Just found your blog and had to ask - is this possible in Minnesota? I will have to check out that book, it sounds very helpful! We are new gardeners, this will be only our third year, we have so much to learn!

  8. Hi Colleen,
    I would certainly try it and see what happens. I haven't had 100% success rate (you definitely have to water the plants in containers!), but the science makes sense. Good luck! :)

  9. Hi Jill,
    I don't think the greenhouse/garden center owner was totally wrong - and I'm sure different things work in different locations and situations.

    I know that in places like Florida when growers are faced with a real cold snap, they often douse the plants in water beforehand, which literally encases them in ice - and keeps them from freezing to death. I always found that fascinating.


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

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