Winter to Spring Gardening

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 21, 2023

One of the rewards of having a thriving winter garden is that it keeps offering fresh produce deep into the spring planting season. Just as we start to sow seeds and move transplants into the slowly warming soil, the last survivors of freezing snows and heavy rain storms keep us supplied with fresh leaves, buds, and a few weathered but still edible bulbs.

Leeks and radish greens

Leeks are my main hardy in-ground allium, which remain available long after my storage onions have run out. The outer leaf sheaths get a bit mushy from the cold but are easily stripped off. The lower mixed green and white sections, protected from frost by being deeply rooted in the soil, are still fresh, solid and full of bite. The tattered tops can be used for soup stock or for feeding the livestock in worm bins. And of course leeks pair traditionally with the last of the stored potatoes for winter soup. As the days lengthen and warm up, a hard inner stalk will develop as the leeks start to go to seed. The thin solid core can be easily removed when the stalk is cut in half lengthwise. Chopped leeks serve as my basic vegetable soup or stir-fry starter, along with the last of the stored garlic heads that haven’t gone soft yet.

Winter cabbages

My hardy winter variety cabbages made it through the cold, with the green cabbages being culled first, followed by the dark reds, with the green Savoy lasting the longest as the heads started to go to seed. If you carefully cut off just the main head, leaving most of the outer leaves, the remaining stalk will soon sprout a ring of fresh side shoots that can be snapped off as tender greens. To spruce up fresh cabbage salads, I add apple slices, some dried currants or cranberries that have been finely chopped and macerated in a honey-vinaigrette dressing, and a handful of buds of the chive plants that have re-sprouted and are already overflowing their pots in my kitchen garden.

Savoy cabbage

Garlic chives, also grown in containers, is another hardy perennial, which if protected by row cover or tarps during heavy freezes, will start rapid growth in early spring. I use them chopped into soups as a last minute addition, as well as in making kimchi, my latest expansion into fermented foods, using the dried Korean hot peppers I grew last year.

Purple sprouting broccoli

Brassica buds are the most common spring edible. In the past I relied on overwintering Purple Sprouting Broccoli, grown specifically for the heavy set of purple seed heads in spring. This year I had a winter purple broccoli that usually heads up in mid-February but was delayed by the heavy snowfall. By spring it had morphed into a bush of small purple broccoli heads. If you keep harvesting the buds, the lower side buds will expand but be smaller. I also tried a semi-cold hardy Italian leaf broccoli that required protection under row cover all winter. It made very dark green buds and white flowers that were easily chopped for soup. The Lacinato kale, a standard winter plant these days, also offers an endless supply of buds, often lasting deep into May.

Another hardy green, also kept under row cover as protection from wind and cold, is Mizuna mustard, a Japanese thin-leafed variety resembling dandelion leaves that is very mild and tender. The tops of over-wintered Oriental white radishes have slightly thicker greens, and will supply a few mature bulbs that can be grated for a horseradish-style condiment or added to a miso soup. Last fall I also potted up a few young volunteer Purple Mustard plants that I protected during the cold. By spring they had new large leaves and bright yellow buds that were very pungent, akin to Chinese mustard.

Mache and turnips

Mache, also known as corn salad, is a hardy but very tender green that comes into its own in early spring, forming a mound of soft greens and white flowers for salad. Finally, the hardy arugulas start to leaf up just about the same time as the ever present dandelions start to sprout. Of course dandelion greens are a standard spring tonic, salad green, and diuretic, known in France as pissenlit, or bed wetter.

As for spring planting in my large garden, so far I have early red and white potatoes in the ground, as well as transplants of green, red, and Chinese cabbage, plus broccolini, all under floating row cover as protection against the root maggot fly, as well as bulb fennel, also under cover as a defense against rabbits. Leeks will go in soon, to restart the allium cycle.

I have expanded my at-home kitchen garden with large containers of snow and snap peas, bok choy, yellow onion sets, as well as Cipolini and Walla Walla starts, lettuces, dill, cilantro, and endive. Note: I use nursery plants as a quick and reliable way to get started during the usual cold and wet spring weather. While I wait for the new generation of plants to grow, I can keep whittling away on the last of all the winter survivors.

6 thoughts on “Winter to Spring Gardening

  1. Sequoia

    regarding those cabbage side shoots- I have sometimes had them grow into other cabbages if they are thinned out. But often they will try to eventually make a flower stalk. I assume it is a timing issue when they might re-head more likely if the cabbage is harvested in fall- But I haven’t figured it out. I wonder if you, Peter or anyone else, have had luck with getting a cabbage to make a secondary head?

    1. Peter+Heffelfinger

      Hi Sequoia,
      I’ve never had a side-shoot develop into a small head, even if the head is removed in early winter. They always eventually sprout a seed stalk, especially once it starts to warm up or, more likely, the daylight hours get longer. Seeds rule.

  2. Darrell Cornelius

    What about kale? We have the most beautiful and tasty kale that wintered easily without protection.

    1. Peter+Heffelfinger

      Hi Darrell,
      Yes, any variety of kale will develop bountiful buds in spring, especially Red Russian, Lacinato, or Hanover (flat leaf green). Not so much with Siberian Curly, which is smaller. With consistent removal of the buds, the kale will keep sending out more little heads before eventually producing flowers. Note: the early yellow flowers are much appreciated by emerging bees looking for food when not many other blooms are available yet. Sparrows and other little birds also show up, checking for aphids when they appear on the bud stalks. Dispose of any kale branch infested with aphids, to keep the endemic insect population under control.
      Peter H.

  3. Jan+Hersey

    Thanks for your motivation, Peter, now, a little help needed. Last fall I enthusiastically, but, alas, too late, planted a raised bed of beets, carrots (four varieties), arugula, and leeks. Everything germinated great, but not with enough time to mature the beets and carrots. Fast forward to a lush spring bed! We’re enjoying the leeks and arugula (love a handful of the latter spicing up a green smoothie). However, the carrots, to date are small and very pale. The beet greens are gorgeous and edible, but will the beets size up or just go to seed?
    And thinking ahead to next fall, I’d love a heads up on the best time to start seeds and/or plant starts (if I have any energy left from the summer garden!). I know it’s earlier than we think, like July?? Maybe Julia Frisbie can share her garden wisdom on this, too.

    1. Peter+Heffelfinger

      Hi Jan,
      Most over-wintering crops need to be started in mid-to-late summer in order to mature adequately before the cold weather starts in November. I always think the 4th of July is the starting gun to start winter crops. Beets still in the ground in the spring will definitely go to seed soon, just as they do out on the Flats for the seed companies. There is a true winter grown carrot, Merida (from Territorial), planted in late September/early October, that I’ve grown, but it needs floating row cover from the very start to prevent damage by the carrot wire worm fly (brown rings of rot in the root). Unfortunately rodents, especially voles, love to snack on beets and carrots left in the ground all winter. My solution is to harvest all undamaged, mature beets and carrots in late fall and store them in buckets filled with slightly damp sand in a cool garage area. Essentially a small root cellar. Do not cut into the roots, which will will cause rot. Twist off most the tops, leaving the stubs of the stalks attached. Place the roots in a vertical position with tops facing up, just below the surface of the sand as if they were still in the ground. The tops will re-sprout in mid-winter, much like Belgian Endive. The roots themselves will develop small root-hairs, but will stay firm and edible.
      Peter H.


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