Do you scroll through Pinterest and see all these wonderful posts about starting a fall garden? I know I do, and I get so jealous of all my gardening friends in warmer climates. Unfortunately, if you live in Zone 3, you can not plant a garden in September and harvest it in the winter. (Hello week of -40 sometime in January or February!)
I wanted to write this post because if you don’t know anything about Zone 3 and are just reading gardening magazines and blogs from warmer zones, you might get the impression that you can somehow grow vegetables and flowers year-round. And while it is possible to grow vegetables in the winter with a huge greenhouse, lights, and heaters, most home gardeners don’t have those kinds of resources or the money to pay a hefty heating & electricity bill all winter.
However, don’t dismay! There are a few things you can do that you might not have thought about.
What Vegetables Can You Plant in Cold Weather?
First, define cold. Second.. . unfortunately, none. Not in this zone anyway.
Sadly, our fall temperatures just don’t stay above freezing consistently or long enough in the fall to grow anything without some sort of mulch, cloche, or greenhouse for protection. If you do want a late crop of vegetables, you have to plant them in mid-July at the very latest.
The one exception? Radishes. You could probably plant one last crop the first week in August if it’s a variety that matures in 30 days.
Another (sort of) exception: Garlic. Garlic needs to be planted in the fall for harvest next fall!
What Vegetables Can You Plant for a Fall Garden?
If you want to try a late-season vegetable garden in zone 3, you’ll need to plant quick-growing crops that can withstand a light frost. I have personally tried lettuce, kale and Swiss chard. All worked well and survived the first few non-killing frosts. You could also try turnips, broccoli (if started earlier indoors), bok choy, arugula, collards, and mustard greens.
Do not attempt any tender vegetables with a long window to maturity, like tomatoes, pumpkins, or eggplant.
Think of planting a fall garden as growing your food to get to the size you want it by the time the first frost hits. In my experience, once the daylight gets shorter and the nights get cooler, your vegetables won’t increase in size very much. They’ll just stay alive, ready for you to use.
With protection, your vegetables might be able to last up until sometime in November. I have only tried extending the season once, and mine lasted until the first week of November.
What about Flower Gardening in Cold Climates?
If you want fall-blooming flowers, you’ll need to plant them in the spring. For ideas of what to plant, check out this post. Most flowers will die after the first killing frost. However, there are a couple of really important flower gardening chores you need to do in the fall:
- Remove tender bulbs like calla lilies, dahlias, and glads for storage over the winter.
- Collect seeds from annual flowers like marigolds. Here are a few more annual flowers you can easily save seeds from.
- Transplant peonies. Did you know they actually do better if you transplant them in the fall? Read more about peony-growing here.
- Plant spring-blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils, alliums, crocuses, and hyacinths.
Cutting back your perennial flower foliage is optional, but you should probably remove dead flowers from your pots.
A word about Carrots
Carrots are one of the few exceptions to all the gardening rules. You can store them outdoors all winter as long as you put a bale of straw over top of them for insulation. However, you may decide that digging out carrots in -40 weather is not your jam. To each their own. After you harvest your carrots, here are some quick & easy ways to store them until spring!
Is there any gardening to be done in Winter in zone 3?
Sort of. You can’t garden in the traditional sense, but there are a couple of things you can do indoors to scratch the gardening itch until spring (finally!) arrives.
1. Plant an Indoor Herb and Greens Garden
Do you have a south-facing window with a decent ledge for setting a pot of plants? Hurray! You can start your own herb garden or try growing some lettuce or spinach in a pot.
Not feeling that confident? Start with a nice houseplant like succulents, snake plants, or peace lilies. I’ve grown all three successfully over the winter. One word of warning: your succulents might start to look terrible in February. If they’re not dying, they just need to be cleaned up a bit. Save the leaves that fall off, and you can propagate some new succulents!
2. Start Seeds for Long Season Vegetables and Annual Flowers
You can start peppers, onions, artichokes, and annual flowers indoors under a grow light or in a south-facing window at the end of February. Everything else needs to wait until mid-March at the earliest.
A Word About Winter Sowing
Last spring I experimented with winter sowing. If you’ve seen the pictures of people setting their seeds outside in milk jugs in the winter, you know what I’m talking about. I was a bit skeptical if it would work in Zone 3, but my friend Joanna at Gingham Gardens got it to work for her in Zone 4, so I was willing to try.
It was pretty successful! In hindsight, I should have set my containers out a little later, as it went down to -25 degrees Celsius two days after I put them out. But despite their rocky start and basic neglect on my part, I got some lovely lettuce, kale, and spinach starters that didn’t need any hardening off. The radishes and Swiss chard didn’t germinate, unfortunately.
I’ve read more about the subject and will try it again this winter/spring to see what else I can do to grow successfully. I’ll update this post when I see how it turns out.
Do you live in Zone 3 and manage to extend the season?
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