Cool-season crops can be grown in Zones 7 and 8 right through the winter with a little bit of gardening know-how and some frost protection measures. Regions in these zones experience extended fall seasons, so if a winter crop is planted early enough, winter harvests can be plentiful. For many in Zones 7 and 8, having a year-round garden is well within reach, but there are some other essential tasks to do in December to keep your gardens and tools in tip-top condition.
Check out our Monthly Organic Gardening Guide By Zone and make sure you don’t miss some essential steps for extending your growing season, performing maintenance routines, and seizing the opportunities to dream big about next season’s garden.
December Garden Planning
Gardening chores may have slowed a bit, but December is a great time to reflect on your garden endeavors. Look back at the successes and pitfalls of past seasons and forge forward with new ideas and enhancements for the coming year.
Year in Review
It is an excellent time for starting a gardening journal if you don’t have one already. Chart seed and plant varieties, their planting specifications, days to germinate and mature, and keep notes about what worked well and what didn’t. This chart will help you plan from year to year with knowing when to sow seeds, plant with optimal spacing, when you can expect blooms, and when to harvest your plantings.
Seed catalogs should start popping up in mailboxes at this point in the year. This is the perfect opportunity to sit back, get cozy, peruse the catalogs, and dream of what you’d like to plant in your spring, summer, and fall gardens. Ordering seeds early can ensure that you get the seeds you seek before other gardeners snatch them up.
If you have friends or community members who are also passionate about gardening, you might look for a seed swap nearby or perhaps start your own. Often, whether through seed saving or an overflow of seeds in packets, you may have extra seeds. Add some diversity to your garden this year by swapping and sharing seeds with other gardeners. Embrace the opportunity to connect with other gardeners and try something new in the garden.
When you aren’t harvesting your winter garden vegetables, pull out your garden journal, and dream a little. Sketch out some ideas or clip garden plan ideas out of magazines to give you visuals to aspire to. Perhaps there are even some indoor construction projects that you can do, like create a climbing structure or a raised bed to be added to your garden this spring.
Winter Garden Maintenance
Fall and winter garden maintenance will make things easier once spring rolls around. Here is a short list of tasks that will keep your garden happy throughout the winter months.
- If you haven’t done so already, dump out any pots and store them in a garage or garden shed so that they don’t freeze and crack. You can also keep them upside down if they need to be outside.
- Cut back spent plants to about 6 inches and add non-diseased organic matter to your compost pile.
- Add compost to your gardens to enrich the soil and plant some cover crops. Both will help to enrich the soil and help combat erosion.
Garden Tool Cleanup
This is the ideal time of the year to maintain your garden tools to keep them in the best working order and to eliminate any disease that might be present upon them. Not only does tool cleaning and maintenance ensure that you have what you need for garden work, but it also will keep your garden free from diseases that may have plagued your garden last season.
- Start by using steel wool or a metal grill brush to clean any debris off your garden tools.
- Wipe surfaces with a damp rag.
- Use coarse sandpaper to scuff away any signs of rust on metal surfaces.
- Dab vegetable oil onto a rag and wipe metal surfaces.
- Use a piece of sandpaper to slough away any rough or splintering spots on wooden handles.
- Wipe wooden handles down with a rag wet with linseed oil.
Healthy gardens start with a robust and nutrient-rich soil structure. If you do not already have a compost pile, start one today and add to it all winter long. Developing an ongoing composting system is one of the best things you can do for next year’s garden. Compost is also important when your gardens are being utilized all year long. This can put a strain on the nutrient levels in your soil. Side-dressing crops with compost can enrich the soil and help your plants thrive.
Organic food and natural green and brown items decompose together to create soil that is well-draining, high in nutrient content, and filled with beneficial microorganisms. A rule of thumb for compost is to have 30-parts of brown ingredients, which are carbon producers, to 1-part green ingredients: the nitrogen producers.
Brown Composting Materials
- Pine needles
- Vegetable stalks
- Wood shavings
- Dry leaves
Green Composting Materials
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Grass clippings
- Hair clippings
- Alfalfa meal
- Coffee grounds
Mulching Your Garden
Mulch plays a vital role in the garden beds during the growing season, but it is also essential to add mulch in the fall and winter months. Mulch insulates the soil and protects perennial plant root systems. Warmer soil also helps microorganisms to thrive and remain active even during the coldest of seasons.
For the most part, temperatures in Zones 7 and 8 remain above freezing, but you can see some sub-freezing temperatures from time to time. In areas that do not have a lot of wind, mulch may be all you need for the protection of your winter crops. Adding a thick layer of mulch can help regulate root and soil temperatures, adding insulation when a winter chill comes through the area.
Indoor Planting and Growing
December is also a great time to get a jumpstart on some indoor seed starting for seeds that require a lengthy germination or maturation period. Seed trays with covers and a sunny window or grow lights and warmers make growing seedlings indoors a breeze. You can even grow planters of tender lettuces and herbs in a sunny area of your home. Create a small indoor container garden that will allow you to tend and snip greens and herbal accents with ease.
It is always essential to ensure that your garden is protected if you plan to grow through the winter season. A greenhouse is an option for extending the growing season in Zone 7 and 8, though it may not be entirely necessary for all crops. Temperatures in this zone are relatively mild, and thick mulching and row covers will protect your crops.
Root vegetables and greens are good performers in greenhouse environments during this cooler season. Traditionally, some of these crops should have been planted in late summer and early fall for a winter harvest. To figure out the ideal planting date for a winter harvest, you must examine the days until maturity on the back of the seed packet and count backward from the time you want to harvest the crop.
If you are looking to grow more tender plants like some lettuces, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc., a greenhouse can provide the warmth and intensity of sunlight needed for such plants to thrive. Use trial and error and see what successes you have in your region. Make a note of what works and what doesn’t as you gear up for next year’s winter crops.
Just as temperatures dip down during Zone 7 and 8’s winters, they can also rise significantly. If growing in greenhouses, be sure to ventilate your greenhouse and water plants well on hot days so that your plants do not wilt under extreme temperatures.
Outdoor Winter Gardening
Fall and winter can be one of the best times for gardeners to plant vegetables. Fewer insects and diseases are likely to plague your crops, and the cooler temperatures allow young plants to grow at a steady pace.
Growing crops year-round means that your soil is working hard. It is important to replenish nutrients in your garden beds by amending your soil and side-dressing crops with well-decomposed compost or organic fertilizers.
With temperatures primarily above the freezing mark, gardeners in Zones 7 and 8 can create productive winter gardens, which will be the envy of Zones 1 to 6. Long fall seasons give way to robust outdoor gardens and winter harvests if gardens are planted by mid-November and properly protected. Consider planting in raised garden beds, preferably on the south side of the house, to keep the soil at its warmest.
Some of the best performers in Zone 7 and 8 winters are arugulas, beets, swiss chard, mustard, cauliflower, radishes, spinach, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, peas, turnips, and varieties of lettuces. When shopping for seeds, keep a keen eye out for varieties that boast cold hardiness and have shorter maturation periods. This is particularly important, as shorter days of sunlight and cooler temperatures will increase the time it takes for plants to mature.
While crops thrive in these zones, it is still paramount to keep track of the weather forecasts in your area throughout the winter months. Temperatures can still dip below the freezing mark on occasion, which can decimate your crops in one swoop. Be prepared to cover crops with a fabric sheeting or row cover when freezing temperatures threaten. You may also choose to protect winter gardens with row covers throughout the season.
Watering and Harvesting in Winter
With basic protective gardening measures in place, the winter gardener’s primary job is to water and harvest their crops when December rolls around. Luckily, winter gardening doesn’t need much in the way of regular watering. Mulching and the reduction of available sunlight reduce watering needs considerably. There are also fewer weeds to rob moisture supplies from valuable crops.
Gardeners in the Zones 7 and 8 can enjoy a continuous rolling harvest all year long. Utilize the cut and come again method of harvesting lettuce and leafy greens and harvest root vegetables as you need them. Root vegetables such as carrots, keep well in cooler temperatures so you can pick them over time even after they have reached maturity.