Winter garden blues: Waiting out cold weather in the veggie patch


Even the hardiest of overwintering vegetables have a difficult time surviving a sustained cold snap. File photo. Even the hardiest of overwintering vegetables have a difficult time surviving a sustained cold snap. File photo.

Winters in Virginia sure can be fickle. Last winter it was so warm that the ground barely froze, and I had clients harvesting tomatoes well into December. And then March hit, with sleety, slushy snow and cold temps, and my spring gardens couldn’t be planted until April—compare that with planting spinach on February 22 several years ago. And, of course, there was the Snowpocalypse of 2009-2010. Earlier this month, we experienced yet another winter drama: The polar vortex.

If you hadn’t covered any fall-sown plantings, you have probably found that they didn’t make it through the single-digit temps. Even with row cover, some of the most cold-hardy winter vegetables won’t pull through a 5-degree night. But if you’re lucky and your veggies make it, you’ll be richly rewarded: Vegetables grown in the cold store more sugar, and are vastly sweeter than their spring- and summer-grown counterparts.

While I used to believe that consistent cold temperatures would also kill off overwintering garden pests, after a little research I have been disabused of this idea. Insects have developed many coping strategies for surviving the cold, including burrowing deep into the soil and storing glycerol (a natural antifreeze) in their blood. So chances are we’ll still have squash bugs and grubs to fend off next season.

So what’s a gardener to do when winter temps keep us indoors? Curl up with a seed catalog, of course, and daydream about warmer weather. My favorites include Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southern, Fedco Seeds (www.fedco, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (, Hudson Valley Seed Library (, and Seed Savers Exchange (, but there are loads more. Remember to consider heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as you place your orders!

International Rescue Committee seeks land for new farmers

Home gardeners aren’t the only ones turning their attention to planning for next season. The International Rescue Committee—a nonprofit that helps to resettle refugees from all over the world right here in Charlottesville—is seeking to expand its New Roots program, which provides refugee farmers with training in food safety, food marketing, and other skills, so that they can develop viable micro-farms.

To implement the new project, they’re looking for land on which their farmers can get started. The IRC seeks 1-2 acres of flat, viable farmland—preferably within walking distance of public transportation, or within a 15-minute drive from downtown Charlottesville—to develop plots for the ten aspiring farmers who have signed on to complete the New Roots training program.

While the IRC has offered community garden space to their refugee clients since 2009, the farmer training and farm plots are an exciting new development that promises not only to support a segment of our community with new skills and opportunities, but should help expose all of us to new and exciting fruits and vegetables that we may never have tried before. If you have land or leads, contact New Roots Program Coordinator Brooke Ray at

Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation, design, and installations for home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising for the Center for a New American Dream. 

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