For many of us, the holidays are synonymous with hot cocoa, Christmas lights, tacky sweaters—and hibernating indoors. Starting a garden in December may seem a little crazy, but here in Baja Arizona, it’s completely feasible! Consider it another benefit to living in this blessed corner of the state we call home; whether the weather is brisk or balmy, you can grow a bountiful harvest year-round.
But how, you might ask? We gleaned some tips from Jan Groth, a Cochise County Master Gardener and an assistant in extension and horticulture in the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension program. Here is some of her best advice for growing a winter garden that’s sure to impress even the most skeptical Scrooge.
The first thing to do is decide what kind of a garden you want to have, Groth said. Will it be in a container? Will you be re-purposing the plot you used for your summer garden? Are you going to build a raised-bed garden?
While any of these will work for a winter garden, keep in mind that whichever site you pick needs to have access to 6-8 hours of sunlight, Groth said. Another thing you’ll want to watch out for is unfriendly winter wind.
“Often in southern Arizona the winds come out of the south or southwest,” Groth said. “You’ll want to put [your garden] more on the other side of an existing structure where you can protect it a little bit from the harsh winds that come up.”
You’ve selected where and how you want to plant your garden, which is half the battle, Groth said. Now it’s time to start thinking about the next most important thing—the soil.
“You really don’t want to try to save money on the dirt, you want to get the best soil that you can,” Groth said.
If you’re doing a raised bed or container garden, buy a nice bagged soil and supplement it with compost and fertilizer.
If you’re re-purposing a summer plot, make sure to do some “winter cleaning” first and clear out all the dead leaves, weeds, and other debris.
“Some folks will think ‘Well it’s good to leave that [debris] and make it part of the compost or mulch that you would use in the soil,’ but a lot of that has collected insect eggs and fungal spores by now, and those eggs and spores like to winter over in that debris,” Groth said.
Once your soil is nice and clean, aerate it by turning the dirt over with a shovel, Groth said. Then, top it off with a healthy dose of fresh compost.
“Compost fixes everything,” Groth said. “Compost fixes soil that’s too compacted and won’t drain, [and] compost fixes soil that’s too loose and drains too easily, where you lose your nutrients.”
You can grow a lot more than just mistletoe in the winter. Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and arugula can all withstand cooler temperatures, and the same goes for cruciform and root vegetables, Groth said. She recommends trying your hand at kohlrabi, a trendy (and tasty) veggie that can be planted right now.
If planting a vegetable garden in the winter sounded strange, planting flowers might sound even more foreign—but it can be done!
There are two reasons why flowers and veggies make good partners in a garden bed, Groth said. First, sowing flowers among your vegetable patch adds to the natural beauty of the garden. But more importantly, the flowers will act as a magnet for any pollinators that happen to be roaming the area.
Groth suggests growing pansies, a hardy flower suited for winter wonderlands.
“You can knock the snow right off a pansy’s face and it will keep on blooming—snows, freezes, and everything,” Groth said.
Once you’ve planted your seeds, be sure to top dress them with a layer of organic material.
“A top dress is going to keep those little roots warmer in the winter for you, plus it’s going to help hold the moisture in as well,” Groth said.
Try using pine needles for some added festive flair!
If you’re not sure how much to water, watch the weather. Water will evaporate less in cooler temperatures, so use your finger to test how wet the soil is before watering, Groth said. If the top three inches of the soil are dry, it’s time to water it again.
“If you water the vegetable garden thoroughly, in the cold temperatures you probably will not need to water it every day, especially if you’ve got a top dressing on it, because that top dressing is going to hold that moisture in,” Groth said.
What I’m about to say might shock you, but there are places in Baja Arizona where it freezes during the winter months. While most winter vegetables won’t be bothered by a little frost, there are some things you can do to safeguard your garden against a deep freeze.
First, you can buy (or make) a floating row cover for your plants. This can be found online or at a garden store, or you can simply use old sheets or towels, Groth said. However, you probably won’t need to cover your plants unless the temperatures drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, she added.
It’s also smart to water your plants beforehand if you know a freeze is coming. This might seem counterintuitive, but dry roots are more susceptible to frost damage, Groth said.
Aren’t sure if the kohlrabi’s ready to harvest yet? Groth’s solution to this all-too-common dilemma is simple.
“Every vegetable has a different harvest time, but there’s so much information on the internet nowadays, that for whatever you’re going to plant, it’s a great idea to just look up that species and there will always be a section on harvesting,” Groth said.
If you want to enjoy perfectly-ripe vegetables all through the holidays, do your homework on the harvest times for your winter crops. Then get ready to sink your spoon into a hearty winter stew made with all the fresh veggies from your garden!
Hopefully this inspired you to leave your cozy fireside (or air-conditioning) and start planting! Whether you’re new to gardening or a veteran green thumb, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to enjoy the benefits of a bountiful garden year-round.
Header image by Nieves Montaño.