Growing food year-round is a bold but realistic goal that is doable with planning and effort. While the growing season is typically associated with spring and summer, it is possible to extend the gardening season and enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs all year long with a bit of ingenuity.
Picking crops suitable for each season, using season extension methods such as row covers, and overwintering certain vegetable crops are some of the most effective ways to grow food year-round. With these and other methods, summer-sown crops will survive until the spring, when new crops can be planted to continue the harvest.
While it may take some extra effort, growing food year-round is a rewarding experience that provides fresh produce even in the middle of winter. With a little planning, anyone can enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor all year long!
Start planning your year-round food production today with these tips!
5 ways to keep your garden producing, even in the offseason
- Know which plants to grow for every season
- Extend the growing season by building or using season extenders
- Plant overwintering crops for the cooler seasons
- Use succession sowing all year
- Create a planting schedule for your garden
It’ll take some planning, but you’ll be off to a good start with the information here.
1. Know Which Plants to Grow for Every Season
To grow food year-round, you must know which crops are best suited for each season. While some vegetables can be planted in summer and harvested in late fall or winter, others are only suitable for summer production.
The typical home garden has summer crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers and perhaps a later-maturing pumpkin or winter squash crop. With the proper planning, you can maximize each season to produce food, rather than only using the warm summer months to provide vegetables.
Cool-season crops are generally planted in early spring and harvested before hot weather arrives. These hardy crops can also be planted again in late summer for a fall or winter harvest (more on fall gardens in a moment).
- Mustard greens
- English peas
These crops are your typical “summer garden” that ripen during a short window of the year and are not suitable to grow into the fall or winter season.
- Summer squash
By including crops from both lists, you could conceivably harvest fresh produce from March until November without any other interventions such as row covers or overwintering crops.
If you choose to use season extension methods (I’ll explain those in the next section), you can add at least a month to either end of your growing season and increase the range of crops and their production window.
2. Extend the growing season by protecting your crops
The start and end of any growing season are dictated by frost. The first frost in the fall signals the end of warm-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers, while the last frost in spring determines when it is safe to plant those same crops.
By using season extension methods, you can increase the number of frost-free days and grow food for longer. These methods keep the air temperature warmer and inclement weather off the plants.
Some common season extension techniques include:
- Hoop tunnels: Hoop tunnels are made from heavy translucent plastic or greenhouse material attached to metal or PVC hoops. They are placed over crops to create a mini-greenhouse that protects against frost and extends the growing season by weeks.
- Row covers: A row cover is a lightweight, semi-transparent material that allows light, fresh air, and water through while retaining warmth for your plants. You can hold this fabric down over your crops with stones or hoop it over wire or PVC hoops. Row covers protect against frost and can extend the growing season by weeks.
- Cold frames: Cold frames are box-like structures with a transparent or translucent lid placed over crops. They protect against frost and extend the growing season by weeks to months. You can make the clear top with old windows, a sheet of plastic, or corrugated plastic sheets, though this last option will let in cold air on the sides.
- Mulch: Mulching is covering the ground around plants with material like straw, leaves, or wood chips. This protects the roots from cold damage and helps the soil retain heat, extending the growing season by weeks to months.
- Cloche: A cloche is a transparent covering made from glass or plastic. They usually come in bell shapes and are made to cover individual plants. You can DIY a cloche using a plastic gallon job by cutting off the bottom. Cloches are most often used in the spring when seedlings are small to be able to plant them out earlier than usual.
- Unheated greenhouse: An unheated greenhouse is a translucent plastic or unheated glass building that will protect your plants against the elements. It won’t raise the surrounding temperature by more than a few degrees during cold weather, but that can be enough to keep your plants alive during cold spells.
Kevin over at Epic gardening has a great guide to how he uses season extension tools and planning:
What are frost dates?
Frost dates mark the beginning and end of the growing season as the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. The decrease in temperature may last only one night, or it might be more prolonged, but either scenario means tender plants will die.
If a spring frost happens when you’ve already planted out seedlings, they can be killed, and you’ll need to replant. An overnight frost will almost always bring an end to your warm-season crops in the fall, though cool-season crops can often shake off the cold and keep going.
To find out your frost date, use this tool on Dave’s Garden to search by your zip code: First and Last Frost Date.
3. Plant a fall garden to overwinter crops
Fall gardens are a highly underutilized way to increase food production year-round, and it’s understandable why.
Spring and summer are busy with planting and maintaining the garden, and remembering to plan and plant a fall garden is often pushed to the back burner until it’s too late.
It’s worth spending one growing season to try out a fall garden, though, and see how much it can impact your food production.
Fall gardens are usually planted out in the summer months of July or August so that the seedlings have time to grow and mature before the days become too short.
Overwintered crops won’t grow much during the short days of weak winter sunlight. Instead, the mature plants will be in a holding pattern, sitting dormant until spring arrives. An overwintered garden is kind of like an outdoor refrigerator.
I’ve written several articles about starting a fall garden, which you can read here to inspire you to grow beyond the summer season:
4. Use succession sowing all year
One of the keys to maximizing your food production is to be intentional about your sowing schedule. It takes a lot of practice to dial this in (I’m still working on improving!), but every year will give you another opportunity.
Succession sowing means that you stagger your plantings to have a steady stream of crops coming to maturity. This could mean every week for quick-growing crops, and for slower-growing crops, you might wait a month between sowings.
Sample of succession planting with spinach
Here’s an example of what succession sowing can look like for a greens crop like spinach, which can grow in all but the hottest days of summer and takes about 40 days to mature from seed.
Instead of planting all your seeds at once, sow a few seeds every two weeks to stagger the maturity.
1st planting: March 1st
2nd planting: March 14th
3rd planting: March 28th
4th planting: April 12th
and so on. You’ll need to pause your sowing schedule through the hottest months of your season, most likely July and August, but that’s right when your summer crops start to mature so that you won’t be out of fresh produce.
Once you are about a month away from your first fall frost, you want to sow a large batch of spinach seeds that will all come to maturity just before the end of the growing season. As mentioned above, the plants will then overwinter in the garden, and you can harvest periodically.
Once the spring season starts to warm the soil, it’s time to begin planting once again.
5. Create a planting schedule for your garden
It’s finally time to put everything together to grow food year-round successfully. Planning will be your biggest ally as you move through the seasons. The exact planting dates will vary depending on what region you’re in and what your climate is like.
April and May are prime planting months for many gardeners, and September or October is when the garden starts to wind down. Remember to look up your planting dates, as mentioned earlier.
Late winter/early spring:
- Plant seeds for cool-season crops in the garden such as lettuce, peas, broccoli
- Start warm-season crops indoors, such as tomatoes and peppers
- Transplant warm-season plants
- Sow warm-season plants like cucumbers, beans, and squash
- Sow root crops, transplant herbs, and flowers
- Start harvesting early cool-season crops
- Sow another round of greens and root crops.
- Start harvesting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.
- Plant fall garden seeds and transplants (learn which vegetables to plant in the fall).
- Start cool-season crops indoors or find space in the garden for greens, broccoli, root crops, peas, etc.
- If not already planted, get all overwintering crops in the ground as soon as possible.
- Get the garden prepared for spring planting and avoid a slow-down in food production.
- No sowings.
- Harvest greens and root crops.
- Wait longingly for spring!
This is a minimal list of plantings. To accurately list everything you would need to sow and plant would be an article in and of itself, and it would depend on your climate and what you want to grow.
The purpose of the schedule is to introduce you to the ebb and flow of the seasons and how there is always something to plant or harvest when you’re growing food year-round.
For a comprehensive book about growing food all year, I highly recommend Elliot Coleman’s book, The Four Season Harvest.
Bonus: 4 Staple Foods That You Can Grow All Year
As a consistent gardener, it’s essential to know your annual and perennial crops, so you don’t have to start planting from scratch every time. Annual crops yield fruit every year, and perennial crops produce for more than two years. Most of these plants are part of our daily diet and can feed you throughout the four seasons regardless of the weather. They include:
Kale is a perfect year-round plant. It can withstand frost and even snow, so it’s the ideal vegetable for winter harvesting. It holds up much better to the heat than other greens like spinach and lettuce in summer.
The dark green lacinato kale has performed the best for me, staying tender and sweet during the summer. In winter, specifically bred varieties wich as Winterbor and Red Russian will plow right through the snow.
If you’re open to harvesting onions at various stages of their growth, you can have fresh ones from the garden all year.
To do this, sow onion seeds thickly, and you can harvest green onions, also known as scallions, from the tops for several months while the onions you leave behind start forming the bulb underground.
Carrots are a versatile root crop that you can sow and harvest all year in most climates. To get the most extended harvesting season, stagger your plantings, so you always have new carrots ready to harvest.
During the summer heat, carrots will grow slowly, so either sow a few extra seeds to make up the difference or supplement with other root crops like beets and radishes.
Some herbs like basil will only grow during warm months, but other herbs are evergreen and live happily year-round. These herbs include sage, rosemary, thyme, and mint in some climates.