As we’re heading later into the year, the pressure is on to grow vegetables that can tolerate less sunlight and colder weather. Even though I try to grow what I can in containers, lately my focus has been on microgreens and herbs. While these might be great options for veggies to grow in the winter (and indoors), I wanted to try out a few more.
Some of the best winter vegetables to grow in containers are root vegetables and some leafy greens. Carrots, potatoes, and beets grow well during winter due to the insulation from the soil, while spinach, cabbage, and broccoli are hardy vegetables that can outlast mildly cold temperatures.
If any of these veggies caught your eye, and you want to find out more about what it takes to grow them during winter, then this post is for you.
Carrots are fun to grow during winter in the south, but they can be challenging. Many gardeners have a tough time growing carrots a decent size, and this is still true for container gardens. I remember one time my mom had a good amount of carrots growing and was excited to harvest them. When the time finally came, we dug them up and found they were the size of baby carrots (like the ones you get from the grocery store). We learned a few lessons that day.
To start growing carrots, you can start sowing the seeds around late-July. Normally, this means about 10-12 weeks before the first fall frost. They require a container more than 12 inches deep, but the width is up to you and how many you want to grow. The best spacing for carrots is one inch apart, with 12-16 inches between rows.
When watering carrots in containers, you’ll want to aim for twice a week. Carrots don’t do well with soaked soil and prefer moist soil. They’ll also need full sun (at least six hours) as this is how the carrot tops will be able to absorb enough energy to grow the root. Too little sun and you end up with baby carrots like my mom. Don’t be like my mom.
The best soil to use is a loose loamy or sandy soil. Carrots will need space to grow their root and soil that isn’t porous enough or packed too tight will also lead to carrots that are underdeveloped. At the same time, they require a lot of nutrients, so using organic amendments like compost will go a long way. You can also use compost to fertilize them by applying a one-inch layer across the container. Just make sure the compost doesn’t touch the carrot greens or root.
If all goes well, you can harvest after around 75 days. If you planted in late-July, then October or November would probably be a good time to check your harvest.
Like carrots, beets are a great choice for winter gardening in containers. They’re cold tolerant, and both the root and the greens are edible.
You can start sowing beets and hardening them off 8-9 weeks before the first fall frost. Beets can be planted in the spring or late fall.
Containers that are 10 inches deep and 24 inches or more across work best as some beet varieties can get pretty large. Space the seeds 1-2 inches apart in the row.
Beets require watering just about every other day. As with most vegetables on this list, try aiming for moist and not soaking the soil. Beets are also cold hardy, so they can withstand lower temperatures than their leafy green counterparts. While they can survive through a light frost, if you have a strong frost coming in, it might be best to bring them inside to wait it out.
Loamy, acidic soil (in the 6.0-7.5 pH range) works best for beets in containers. If you happen to have a clay or alkaline soil, then try mixing in some sand or organic compost to lower the pH levels. You might have to play around with amending the soil, but if you can get it within that pH range, and the soil is rich in nutrients, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Beets prefer a 10-10-10 NPK (NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) fertilizer, or if you have compost handy, it will work just fine as well. You can expect to harvest the beets after 7-8 weeks after planting. Depending on your hardiness zone and how well you can start beet seedlings in the winter, you could grow beets throughout most of the season.
Potatoes are some of the most cold-hardy vegetables out there. While potato greens will die with frost, the tuber will live on and can continue growing. Easy to grow in a container and super calorie-dense, they’re a great vegetable to grow in the winter. Eating a baked potato or hardy potato stew during the winter can be incredibly warming and satisfying, making them a great choice this season.
When it comes to planting potatoes, you may want to skip the seeds and just go straight for using spuds. If you leave some out and they start growing sprouts, these are perfect to use in your garden. You can even slice the potatoes into 4+ disks and each one will grow into a different potato plant (trust me, I’ve tried this and it worked wonders). Very few vegetables are as generous and forgiving as potatoes.
You can plant potato spuds about 2-3 inches deep in late August or early September. Use containers that are at least 16 inches in diameter. For this reason, 5-10 gallon containers work best with a depth of at least 15 inches to allow for the potatoes to develop properly. If you’re planting multiple potatoes, space them out 12 inches apart with about three feet between rows.
Aim to water potatoes about once a week. A good rule is 1.5 inches of water per week, based on the container’s size. Check to see if the soil stays moist after a few days. If the soil doesn’t drain well and stays wet, potatoes can rot fairly fast.
Compared to other container vegetables, potatoes aren’t picky when it comes to sunlight. They’ll make do with either partial or full sun. But while they can grow successfully in partial shade, they run the risk of being stunted. For that reason, full sun is the best bet to help the potato greens provide nutrients for the tubers. The only thing to remember with the full sunlight is that the tubers shouldn’t be exposed to it. If they are, they run the chance of turning green and spoiling.
Potatoes like a loose, well-drained soil with a high amount of organic matter and prefer an acidic soil pH of 4.8-5.5. When it comes time to fertilize potatoes in the growing season, start with a 5-10-10 fertilizer (half the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium). The reason why they require lower nitrogen compared to other winter veggies is that nitrogen is primarily used for the potato greens to develop. Once the greens reach a certain size, growth becomes redundant and the focus shifts to growing the tubers.
You can start harvesting potatoes when the foliage starts to die or when the plant starts to flower. Usually this is around 70-120 days. Simply dig up the tubers and brush off the dirt. If you store them in a cool, dark place they’ll last a long time.
If you’re wondering how to find cheap containers for your garden this winter, check out this video by Grace Hollow Rabbitry.
Lettuce is an easy winter leafy green that you can grow almost all year round, depending on your region and frost levels. You can also regrow lettuce by saving the head by about one inch from the bottom. If you replant it, it will start to grow roots and new leaves after just a few days.
Seeds can be started and hardened off in September and they work best in containers that are at least six inches deep and 4-8 inches apart. They don’t need as much depth as some other winter vegetables, so if you have some shallow containers laying around, they might be a perfect fit to grow some lettuce.
Water lettuce 1-2 times per week, and again, we’re aiming for moist soil, not wet. Lettuce is tolerant with either partial or full sun and usually leans towards partial. If you have some areas that have some shade, consider placing your lettuce pots there and save the full sun areas for other winter vegetables.
When growing lettuce, use a soil that has a high amount of organic matter and nitrogen, and is well-draining. Since they prefer rich soil, compost is a great tool to use as both in part of the potting soil as well as a fertilizer. If you’re using store-bought fertilizer, aim for a 10-10-10 NPK.
Harvest lettuce when the leaves have grown to 3-6 inches long. It generally takes about 6-8 weeks to reach full maturity. Don’t be afraid of harvesting a bit earlier than you think as lettuce regrows incredibly fast.
Another cold-hardy leafy green, spinach is a good choice to grow in the winter. Although, it does have its challenges. The biggest one being that spinach seedlings can be difficult to transplant.
For best results start your spinach seeds 1-2 months before the darkest period of the year (often called the Persephone period). If you are transplanting your spinach, wait until it has two leaves.
Spinach plants prefer containers that are two gallons or more or a soil depth of at least five inches, although a depth of 12 inches can have better results. Spinach roots grow a deep taproot and like a looser soil to allow for root growth. For this reason, try keeping the soil light and airy if possible.
Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep and try to space and thin them to about 2-4 inches apart and space 12 inches between rows.
Water spinach twice a week, or the watering schedule that best fits your climate. The potting-mix should be well-draining and water shouldn’t be allowed to sit for long. If water accumulates, consider drilling more drainage holes or repotting with more porous soil.
Full sun is ideal, but spinach can handle partial sun well and can often get enough nutrients and growth from just a few hours a day.
The best soil to use is one with a high amount of organic matter, a pH of 6.5-7.0, and lots of nitrogen content. If you’re considering using fertilizer, spinach does well with a 10-10-10 mix during early spring or summer. Spinach can be harvested in 35-45 days, or when it has a rose-shape (also called a rosette) with 5-6 leaves.
Winter cabbage is a fairly hardy vegetable as the seeds can germinate in temperatures as low as 40ºF. You can start sowing winter cabbage anytime from mid-summer to fall. Seedlings will take about 8-10 weeks to grow and can be hardened off after the sixth week.
The container should be around 2-5 gallons, depending on how large of a variety of cabbage you’re growing. Cabbage requires a soil depth of 18-36 inches to allow enough room for roots to grow.
Consider watering 2-3 per week, but don’t over-do it. Cabbage heads can split if they are watered too much. This is because they store a lot of water, especially after a dry period, and the increased pressure can cause the head to split (sounds painful).
The best time to water is in the morning, and it’s a good idea to water at the base of the plant to keep the leaves dry. Watering the leaves can splash the soil around and introduce fungus and disease, which can quickly overtake the plant. You’ll know it’s time to water when the top two inches of the soil is dry.
Full sun works best, with six hours being the minimum. If you can give the cabbage more sun it should grow bigger and sweeter. Use a soil that consists of rich, well-drained, organic matter with a pH of 6.5-6.8. Add a layer of compost once or twice a season for best growth, without it touching the plant. If you’re adding fertilizer, use a 10-10-10 NPK mixture.
You can start harvesting cabbage after 80-180 days when the head is solid and firm throughout. While the size of the cabbage head can vary based on soil, weather, and other conditions, if it is tightly formed, it should be ready.
Similar to cabbage, you can start planting broccoli in late summer to fall. This should allow enough time to grow as a winter crop. Start the seeds during this time and after 4 weeks of growth, start to harden them off.
Broccoli prefers a container that’s about five gallons and has roots that can reach 12-18 inches deep. Water about 1.5 inches every week, while keeping an eye on the dryness of the soil. If the soil dries quickly, and the broccoli leaves start wilting, considering doubling your watering frequency.
Keep broccoli in full sun and the soil rich. It grows best with an acidic pH of 6.0-6.8 in well-drained soil with a high amount of nitrogen and organic matter. You can feed it the same 10-10-10 fertilizer as most vegetables on this list, but broccoli can benefit from mixes that have a higher nitrogen ratio as well. Like with other vegetables, compost can be a reliable and complete nutritious supplement for broccoli.
Start harvesting broccoli when the buds are deep green and packed. If it starts to flower or yellow, harvest the broccoli plant as soon as you can. Usually this is around 100-150 days. Its large leaves can continue growing after the head is harvested and are also edible.
Bonus Winter Veggies to Grow in Containers
If you’re in too cold of a climate, don’t have enough sun, or simply don’t have enough space for a container garden this winter, then you should consider growing sprouts or microgreens. Both are easy, quick, and nutritious and take only minimal work. If you’re new to these, then you might be asking what’s the difference.
The difference between sprouts and microgreens has to do with their age. Sprouts are younger and don’t require light, while microgreens are sprouts that have grown to the point of having their first “true” leaves. Microgreens need a soil medium to grow in and have much more nutrition than their mature counterparts.
I grow microgreens every now and then, and they really don’t take too much work. It only takes a few minutes to seed them and then a few seconds every day to mist them with some water. I have the grow-lights and a fan on a programmable outlet timer, so I just let it do its thing.
If you’re inventive with your setup, you can even automate the watering too. After that, the only manual thing you would need to do is sowing and harvesting.
Because microgreens and sprouts can be completely grown indoors with grow-lights, they can make a great winter vegetable to grow and have up to 40 times the nutrients than their mature versions.
Tips to Grow Winter Veggies in Containers
While some plants might not be able to tolerate frost well, others, like spinach and potatoes (and most on this list), can survive a light frost. Consider your plant’s survivability carefully. Keep in mind, many vegetables will need to be hardened off (slowly adjusted to the cold), so steer away from abruptly putting your young veggies out in the cold for extended periods of time.
Whenever you’re setting up a container garden, it’s a must to install drainage holes in them. Without proper drainage, it’s easy to water-log plants and kill them off before they produce. A good rule is to have multiple holes spaced out (depending on how large the container is) and put small pebbles towards the bottom of the container. These will help the water drain out and not just soak the soil.
It’s also important to make sure the soil isn’t collapsed and there’s enough space for the plant’s roots to respirate and grow. This also helps limit water retention in the soil (to help prevent root rot). It’s a balancing act, but including larger pieces of organic matter like peat moss or coconut coir can be beneficial for these reasons.
Once you have the proper drainage and soil porosity, expect to water your vegetables at least twice a week, and sometimes daily. Your weather, dryness, soil, and more will have an influence on how quickly the soil dries. If you do find your soil is drying too fast, consider mulching to retain water and provide more nutrients as the mulch breaks down. Most veggies need moist soil (but not soaking wet), so keep an eye on them and try to identify what watering schedule works best for your container garden.
Even with the right soil porosity, overwatering is still a common mistake with container vegetables and can lead to several issues. For example, watering too much or too frequently can drain the soil of its nutrients faster, meaning you’ll have to keep a close eye on the soil fertility. Finding the right balance of water can not only save on your water bill but also reduce the work you’ll need to put in restoring the nutrients.
If you aren’t sure what’s the best watering schedule for your garden just yet, consider using self-watering pots. Here’s a link to one that I’ve been eying on Amazon.
Moving on from watering, if you can’t decide on the size of the container you want, keep in mind that the larger the container the more space for roots and the warmer the vegetables will be. This can come in handy if you’re living in colder hardiness zones.
Winter is generally not a good time to fertilize. If you do fertilize in the winter, most of the nutrients will sit there and go unused until the growing season. This has the potential to burn the plant’s roots, especially if the fertilizer has a high nitrogen content. Instead, fertilize in early spring or summer when the plants are growing the most and can absorb the nutrients quickly.
- Check to see if your vegetables can survive your hardiness zone
- Install drainage holes in your containers
- Porous soil will help prevent stagnant water and space for roots to grow
- Find each vegetable’s watering schedule
- Don’t overwater as it can drain nutrients out of the soil
- Use self-watering pots if you don’t know the watering schedule yet
- In general, the larger the container, the more space and warmth the vegetable will have
- Fertilize in early spring or summer
Growing vegetables in the winter can be challenging, but by having a container garden, you can better influence a few more factors like soil, pests, and warmth. Hopefully, these tips helped. Good luck with your container garden this winter!