Growing Vegetables in Winter

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Home made winter growing tunnelFrost will kill your exposed vegetable plants! We learnt this the hard way even though we planted what we thought were supposed to be “frost resistant” varieties. Our lettuce seed packet simply said that they were suitable for planting “All Year Round” and the image on the packet showed tick marks next to all four seasons for both frost free as well as frost prone regions.

We tested the “leaf” lettuce by growing eight plants, transplanted from seedlings, under very simple cloches (plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off) for the first three weeks and they did very well in the 0-8 degree (celcius) early morning temperatures. Then, when the lettuces were big enough to harvest a leaf or two, we removed two of the cloches to see if they would indeed survive the cold.

Frost Bitten LettuceThey didn’t even last a full 24 hours and overnight they turned completely limp, the edges of the leaves looked as if they had been held too close to an open flame and the whole plant just seemed to shrivel up and die. They are still in the ground as I write this but I don’t think there’s much hope for them, do you?

On the other hand, the veggies planted in our new home made “Mini-Greenhouse” Growing Tunnel are doing very well indeed, almost as if it were the middle of spring already.

 

Building our Winter Growing Tunnel
We decided a few weeks ago that the seedlings that we were growing so prolifically on our new seedling rack were a bit of a waste if we were not going to transplant them into the garden, especially since we don’t have enough pots and 25lt barrels to accomodate all of them indoors either. I looked around on the internet at the various options for growing vegetables though the winter season and decided to try building a growing tunnel for one of our bigger (6×3 ft) Square Foot Garden raised boxes.

I managed to get hold of a few meters of UV resistant grow tunnel plastic sheeting from Obaro in Wonderboom for R46 per meter – these are 4m wide rolls, so that would be R46 for 1×4 meters. Three 2m lengths of 20x38mm planks for the base frame (one of which we cut in half for the two shorter ends), two 4m lengths of 20mm PVC piping (@ R10 each from Builders Warehouse) cut in half for the three struts and the top piece, a few cheap brass hinges and some duct tape was all that it took to make our growing tunnel. The whole tunnel cost us less than R250 and a couple of hours of work and we can now grow a full bed of veggies (18 squares) throughout the winter.

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We attached the base frame of the tunnel to the raised box with hinges to allow us to flip open the tunnel and have easy access to the front and sides of the bed. In the spring and summer months we can then just unscrew the hinges and the whole tunnel can be removed and stored until next winter. Now I just have to figure out how to make a collapsible one for easier storage 😉

If you do decide to follow in our footsteps with this project, make sure that you make provision for air vents to allow a bit fresh air to circulate through the tunnel during the day. We just cut flaps into the plastic sheeting on either end of the tunnel and attached a piece of shade cloth on the inside of the flaps to prevent bugs getting in. Open the flaps during the day to let the air circulate and close them again late in the afternoon to help trap the days warmth inside.

Using Cloches on your plants
Ok, so I bet that many of you were wondering what a “cloche” is. It is simply a container, usually glass or plastic, that is placed over the growing seedling or plant to create an “individual greenhouse” for each plant. We used these on our smaller bed and we found that 2lt plastic coke bottles with the bottoms cut off are ideal for seedlings and smaller plants. Simply take the lids off to allow air to get in and plop the whole thing over the plant.

I can understand how these plastic bottles would protect the plants against wind and a few bugs but I wondered just how much protection this type of solution would provide against the freezing early morning temperatures in Pretoria. After our little experiment with the lettuces as described above, I am now suitably impressed.

The only problem now is finding enough suitable (bigger) containers as the plants outgrow the relatively slim coke bottles. The 5lt fruit juice bottles that we are currently using on our strawberries might do the trick but, since I am a Coke addict (the cola variety of course), these bottles are a little more difficult to come by in large quantities.

The Importance of Mulching
Also, don’t forget to add a layer of mulch on top of the soil. We put down a 2-3cm layer of bark chips and this seems to work very well in preventing evaporation (keeping the soil moist) as well as keeping the soil a few degrees warmer than it would normally be at this time of year. Hay/straw/dried grass would also work and you could even scatter a layer on top of the plants at night to keep them warm, just remember to clear them so that they can get some sunlight during the day. Mulching will also help keep any stray weeds at bay and a “natural” mulch like this can then be dug into the soil after the growing season to happily compost itself back into the soil.

I have also seen people who have used small squares of old carpet or a thick black plastic “pond” sheeting with a slit and a small hole in the middle to place around the plant like a collar. This might not look very “natural” but I am assured that it works like a charm and it’s an ideal way to recycle any old bits of carpet or plastic sheeting that you have lying around.

Of course, we would love to hear of your experiences and any suggestions you may have for winter growing so please leave us a comment below or drop us an email.

Happy gardening
Mark

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22 Comments on “Growing Vegetables in Winter”


  1. Alec Viljoen says:

    Thanks, great site. Read this on Friday and have started making boxes and will be sorting out the mixture on Monday. So the site has at least helped one person 😉

  2. Antoinette says:

    Hello there
    WOW! I am so chuffed that I stumbled onto this amazing site. I have just moved into a house and have always wanted to have a veggie garden. For the last couple of weeks i have been browsing in bookstores and asking around at nurseries for some ideas and help – most of the feedback i got was broadly based – not much help for a novice like me on a budget 🙂 All I have to do now is find an able bodied man (only cause I’m not a handy man) to help me build the boxes and Volia! gonna have my veggie garden up and running in no time at all. :))

  3. Ansie Labuschagne says:

    Hi There

    I want to start growing organic vegtebles and need to find out about organic tunnels, who I contact to put tunnels up for me, the cost of the tunnels and I need to know about the soil, watering and seeds needed for such a project.

  4. jon says:

    Thanks for the great advice this and http://loveonaleaf.com really helps.

  5. I would like to know what veggie’s to plant now (winter) – Jeffreys Bay Eastern Cape – I’ve finally got my veggie garden and cannot wait to start it…. What to plant?
    Regards,
    Bernice

    • Lesley says:

      Hi There, I have bought Janes Delicious Garden, by Jane Griffiths she tells you at the back of the book what can be planted in the different areas and the seasons. Her second book on harvesting is also great reading.
      Good luck.
      Regards Lesley.

      • Tammy says:

        Hi, I have also bought Janes Delicious Garden. Brilliant book. I started the compost heap as per the instructions and find that the horse manure hardly smells, after 5 days I added more leftover vegies and peels into the heap and found that it was already heating up – exactly as the book said it would!! The only problem I am having with this book is putting it down. I have wanted my own vegi garden for a long time and am so excited for the heap to be ready so that I can start 🙂 So glad I stumbled onto this site!!

  6. Dave Walker says:

    Hi Mark,
    Stumbling on your site today was an inspiration!

    Living in Rhodes makes winter growing a nightmare of note. Nonetheless, I built a 6 x 3m tunnel and laid a network of 40mm agricultural piping +-150 to 200mm below the surface. I built a “donkey” and use old engine oil to heat the water that flows through the piping network without pumping using the sutiably sloped terrain and the “hot water rises” principle. This warms the soil and whilst it is white with snow outside (and with appropriate sub-zero air temperatures), the soil temperature can easily be maintained between 20 and 24*C. Just in case, to break the chill inside the tunnel, I also installed a thermostatically controlled domestic fan heater.

    The system works a treat allowing us to grow oregano, mint, chives, “velt salat”, lovage and even lettuce through the winter. Unfortunately, Sweet basil proved to be a bit too cold-sensitive.
    Cheers,
    Dave.

  7. JOYCE says:

    hi there i am new in the small gardening world, is it possible if you can give me advise on what sort of vegatable can be grown in the tunnels, can you also plant root crops? you advise will be appreciated
    cheers

  8. plant vegetables says:

    Great site. I love your mini greenhouses. Did you make them or buy them?

  9. veggie-X-treme says:

    Great site guys, lots of very useful/helpful info. Could you please suggest the most ideal shadecloth density to use for a Greenhouse. I live along the coast of Kwazulu/Natal and the Sun is super fierce for most part of the year. The veggies I’ve planted before do very well outside but the Sun seriously ‘hammers’ them.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks for the compliment veggie-X-treme. We have had great success with a 30% shadecloth up here in Pretoria (the mid-summer sun is a scorcher up here too) but I have seen people using anything up to 50% depending on circumstances. Just remember, if you are growing in an enclosed greenhouse environment and your veggies need pollination in order to bear fruit, then you may have to pollinate by hand.

  10. Sandy says:

    I must agree with all. It is great to find out what you can do in your gardens to make them more than just a garden but an edible one for humans, not just bugs. Please could you tell me – I have a nartjiee tree, 3 actually, my late dad generously distributed seeds in my garden and they have grown. Last year they flowered and bore fruit, small and sour as sin. What can I do to change this. As i also have grapes, a fig tree and avo tree, please help. Some kind of growing shedule would also be great.

  11. KATHY says:

    THANK YOU 4 SHARING YOUR INNOVATIVE IDEAS FOR CITY BEINGS!

  12. SAGREEN says:

    If you are searching for a good quality vegetable tunnel, contact SA GREEN.

    The tunnel consists of galvanized steel pole and is including 30% shade cloth. 10mx4mx2.3m is only R3990 (incl vat).

    Check our facebook page , like it and you get an other R150 discount!

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/SAGREEN/108582929206987

    Imagine what you can grow in that size? Perfect for your hobby organic graden, or the hydroponics. Give your veggie’s the protection they need and deserve.

    You can contact me at info@sagreen.co.za , we can send you all kinds of pictures and help you with all your questions.

    Kind Regards,

    Simon

  13. Therese says:

    This is great, I’m so glad I found this article for a few extra tips, built a low-hoophouse myself the other day spinning off your idea, had some problems with the storm, but I guess we learn from trial and error…pics on my blog http://www.godsediblegarden.blogspot.com…Thanx again Mark!

  14. shaun warren says:

    Hey so i am starting a garden… I dug up the grass and started taking out the rocks and stuff in the soil, so the soil is nice and dark brown. i put some organic fertilizers in there and worked it in the ground this has been going on for about 3 weeks now…is it wise to plant now before the winter? I want to buy little plants at plant land or somewhere. is it better to plant them and put the 2lt or 5lt bottles over them? I want to plant spinach, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, chilies, lettuce, carrots, beetroot, sweet potatoes and green beans and butternuts. Which of these grow in the winter? This is my first garden so i am kind of new at this…any tips for a newby anyone? oh and MARK thanks for the tips and keep the website going…!

  15. Jan says:

    Hi,

    Cool site. I would like to know if you had issues with aphids?
    I had an aquaphonic system before that was enclosed and aphids destroyed my plants over and over.Couldn’t find a solution to that problem.

    Thanks
    Jan

  16. dennis pike says:

    thanks for the info. have just retired to jansenville in the ec soil rock and clay water full of sulfer no opption but to grow in containers started today,have got rain water tanks but any suggestions on using town water.


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