Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Winter Container Gardening

Save some money by growing your own veggies - even in the dead of winter!

It’s the very last day of summer today – by 8 o’clock it will officially be sweater season! And wouldn’t you know it, the rain is also poised to start overnight and continue through to April. Sigh.
West Coast Seeds Winter Gardening Guide & Planting Chart and my garden journal
Yesterday I ripped out my bush beans and half of my tomato plants (they were starting to look pretty dry and sad). A fantastic growing season for both, and I was sad to see them go. But they left behind bare soil just begging to be tilled, supplemented and sown with winter-hardy veggies!

For the first time, I’ve put aside my doubts and fears and have sown seeds for winter vegetable gardening here on my little balcony. West Coast Seeds put together an amazing Winter Gardening Guide & Planting Chart which is so idiot-proof even I feel inspired to try my luck. Of course I was late starting several seeds (which is always the way – I don’t think that puny little zucchini I started in late June is going to ripen before it starts to rot! Blast!) and three of the veggies I planted came from seeds that are a year or so past their “usual seed life”. Ah. What can I say – they were free.
West Coast Seeds Winter Planting Chart with garden journal and seeds of all ages and varieties

I’ve decided to put odds on the seed germination (much like horse racing) in my gardening journal to help accept the negative results that are bound to happen in at least one pot. I figure if I predicted that the seeds were dead, I’d at least be able to console myself with my ability to guess what will and won’t grow! Celebrate small victories, n’est-ce pas?

I have faith in the lettuce seeds – one is a mix of various varieties from Stellar Seeds (seeds donated by Farm Folk/City Folk at Brian Harris’s MOV exhibit), and the other is “Butterhead/Bibb” from West Coast Seeds packed for 2009 (but still well within that 3 year expiry window) that were given away at the Greenstreets Party last weekend. More on the Greenstreets Programme in a subsequent posting!

I have given the carrots and onions about a 70% chance of germination and survival to maturity since I’m starting both a full month late. The carrots are the “Bolero pelleted seed” from West Coast Seeds (packed for 2010 – have some growing already in amongst the tomato roots) and the onions (2009 stock) were also giveaways at the Greenstreets party. I can’t stop giggling at the name “Ramrod”, especially given a package description of “stiff and erect” (maturity is not one of my many virtues…!). Both the carrots and the obscenely named onions are being babied in a shared pot that I bring inside at night to help keep the soil temperature high. 

And in the “highly unlikely” category I’ve included seeds that my former property managers left to me when they headed east, all of which are past the magic 3-year window and have likely expired. Nevertheless, I am attempting to grow “Cylindra” beets (Island Seed Company), a mix of mustard greens (“oriental greens blend”) from West Coast Seeds (2006!), and “Olympia” spinach (also 2006) from West Coast Seeds. The beets don’t actually have a year or expiry date on them (the package design was copyrighted in 2006), so there’s an outside chance that they’ll germinate. The mustard and spinach seeds come from a good source, so perhaps there’s the slimmest of chances that a few will sprout. 

It’s a lovely sunny day, and I’ve placed translucent plastic bags loosely over the damp soil hoping to increase the soil temperature. I will hopefully be replacing the plastic with more attractive cloches in time (though they will be homemade and let’s face it – ghetto!) and with any luck will have fresh veggies throughout the winter months.
Rows of lettuce and spinach seeds under a former David Hunter's potting soil plastic bag in the corner; awesome yellow cherry tomatoes still going in September  (Gold Nugget - West Coast Seeds)

Cabbages are the quintessential winter veggie to grow, and make for lovely planters (check out “January King” for a really nice winter cabbage). That’s the plan for next year, anyway. Garlic, radish and spinach should be sown this month, and apparently some broad beans can be planted in October for overwintering. Lettuce grown under cover is also recommended for sowing in September, but note that many overwintering vegetables are planted in the heat of summer, from June through August. This is to allow the plant to grow enough before the cool weather sets in.

I suppose that’s really the biggest drawback to winter gardening in a balcony container garden – limited space. It’s hard enough to squish in a small barbeque and table with chairs amongst the bushy, productive foliage – imagine trying to fit in more pots with seedlings! I suppose seedling starters and small plastic trays don’t take up much space, but trying to keep seedlings moist and cool enough in July and August is a challenge, especially if you want to go away for a weekend or longer!

We’ll see how this winter’s crop goes – fingers crossed! It may be that a protected, sunny balcony in Kits will grow a bumper crop of greens quite easily. I know it was warm enough last year to cause my spring bulbs to sprout in October.
Borage plant (pruned recently), watering globe (thrift store purchase) and a cut up plastic bag as a make-shift cloche insulating likely defunct beet and oriental (mustard) greens seeds

I encourage you to try your hand at overwinter container gardening and to put that now unpopular and damp balcony to good use growing garlic for next July’s dinners, and radishes and spinach for freshly grown fall and winter salads. For more inspiration, check out the West Coast Seeds Winter Gardening Guide & Planting Chart. Good luck!


  1. Hayley, I love that you've posted this! I have been thinking of doing some "balcony" planting (you'll have to see said "balcony" to understand my trepidation about spending much time at all on the silly thing) this year but wasn't sure if it was too late to get started... or where/how to start, even! Do you have any recommendations for where to get seeds if it's this last-minute?

  2. Ha, good question! I would call around the various garden centres and ask if they have any of the particular type of seed you're interested in. West Coast Seeds are very popular and sell out very quickly in nursery display cases, but their online service is fantastic and I'm sure you could put in a rush order! Choose varieties that are rated "easy" to save yourself grief. To get started, you'll want to till the soil well, mixing in some organic fertilizer (depending on what you're wanting to grow exactly! Always read the labels first - carrots need sandy, fine, well-drained soil with lowish nitrogen, for example).
    Grab a pencil and paper (or do it on powerpoint with shapes!) and work out your layout. Unfortunately, plants are like wedding guests and must be seated together carefully and with thought! Companion planting guides (Wikipedia: , Gardens a Blaze: ) help sort out who should go where.
    Get yourself some clear plastic (bags cut open, scrap vapour barrier, etc.) to create your own cloches (think mini-greenhouse: frost protection and heat retention), and that's about it!
    Garlic, radish and spinach are all fair game for September sowing as are some onions and lettuce.
    Good luck! :)

  3. I should have mentioned this earlier - some nurseries might already have seedlings for sale for overwintering, too! Call ahead and let them know your plans. Go with the most helpful nursery! :)

  4. How to grow garlic in a container:

    And a video:

  5. I'm just curious, why we need to put some plastic cover this container or pot?

    Just like to share with you a famous quote...

    "The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven's lieutenants. " -- Shakespeare

    You can get more famous quotes at

  6. Hey Tanya,
    The plastic (or other insulation - hay or straw, burlap, shredded newspaper, etc.) is to keep the cold air off the plants to protect from frost. If the plant itself freezes, it may not survive (some plants are 'hardier' than others!). I didn't protect my plants well and lost almost everything when it got to -8 C just recently. :(
    Here's an article on Winter gardening at West Coast Seeds: (It's also a great place to buy seeds that will over-winter!).
    Sometimes putting a mini-greenhouse/cloche/plastic cover over your peppers, tomatoes or other heat-loving plants will help extend their growing season (by keeping the night temperatures artificially higher). :)
    I hope you've had more success than I did with any winter gardening you did this year! Happy New Year!