Cold Hardy Vegetables – Tips On Planting A Vegetable Garden In Zone 4


By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

In zone 4, where Mother Nature rarely follows a calendar, I glance out my window at the bleak landscape of an endless winter and I think it sure doesn’t seem like spring is coming. Yet, little vegetable seeds stir to life in seed trays in my kitchen, anticipating the warm soil and sunny garden they will eventually grow in. Read on for information on planting a vegetable garden in zone 4.

Zone 4 Vegetable Gardening

Spring can be short lived in U.S. hardiness zone 4. Some years it can seem like you blinked and missed spring, as cold freezing rain and snow showers seem to turn overnight into hot, muggy summer weather. With an expected last frost date of June 1 and a first frost date of October 1, the growing season for zone 4 vegetable gardens can be short too. Starting seeds indoors, properly utilizing cold crops and succession planting can help you get the most out of the limited growing season.

With big box stores now selling vegetable seeds as early as January, it’s easy to get prematurely excited for spring. However, the general rule of thumb in zone 4 is to not plant vegetables and annuals outdoors until Mother’s Day, or May 15. Some years plants may even get nipped by frost after May 15, so in spring always pay attention to frost advisories and cover plants as needed.

While you shouldn’t plant them outdoors until mid-May, vegetable plants that need a long growing season, and more sensitive to frost damage, can be started from seed indoors 6-8 weeks before the expected last frost date. These include:

  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Squash
  • Cantaloupe
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Okra
  • Watermelon

When to Plant Vegetables in Zone 4

Cold hardy vegetables, usually called cold crops or cool season plants, are the exception to the Mother’s Day planting rule. Plants that tolerate and even prefer the cool weather can be planted outdoors in zone 4 as early as mid-April. These types of vegetables include:

  • Asparagus
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Leeks
  • Collards
  • Parsnips
  • Lettuce
  • Cabbage
  • Beets
  • Turnips
  • Kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Broccoli

Acclimating them in an outdoor cold frame can increase their chance of survival and ensure a rewarding harvest. Some of these same cool season plants can be planted in succession to give you two harvests. Quick maturing plants that are excellent for succession planting are:

  • Beets
  • Radishes
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Kale

These vegetables can be planted between April 15 and May 15, and will be harvestable by mid-summer, and a second crop can be planted around July 15 for an autumn harvest.

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Many vegetables grow well in a small space. By planting vegetables in your 4-by-4-foot garden, you add foliage to your landscape while providing food for the family. Salad greens work well in a small space because the leaves grow closely and don't take up a large amount of space. Other small vegetables include carrots, beets, asparagus and onions. Tomatoes, bush beans and peppers take up more space in your small garden due to the size of the grown plants, but they still work. Larger vegetables like corn don't work well in a small space. The stalks take a lot of space and produce only a few ears of corn. Choose vegetables that your family eats most often so the garden is useful.

Vine plants take up a significant amount of ground space if allowed to grow along the soil. To maximize your small space, plant the vines along the edge and install a trellis. The vines grow up along the trellis so they only take a small area in the 4-by-4-foot garden. Vine vegetables you can grow on a trellis include cucumbers, pole beans, peas and squash. Position the trellis so it won't block sunlight for the rest of the plants in the garden.


Michigan: Vegetable Planting Calendar

CityLast Frost DateFirst Frost Date
Ann Arbor5/310/7
Battle Creek5/209/21
Clinton5/1310/9
Dearborn5/210/13
Detroit5/210/13
Flint5/610/8
Grand Rapids5/159/29
Holland5/810/10
Kalamazoo5/1010/3
Lansing5/610/8
Livonia5/310/7
Sterling Heights5/610/11
Warren5/610/11

*Based on statistics there is a 10% chance that frost will occur before or after these dates. Watch your local weather for more accurate dates.

Michigan on average has approximately 140 days between the last and first frost. Follow the planting schedules below for when to plant tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.


Cold-Tolerant Vegetables for Zone 4

So taking all of that into consideration, you might be wondering what kind of vegetables you can grow in such a cold and short growing season. As it turns out, a whole lot of veggies are actually cold, hardy. Not only can these plants survive the weather in zone 4, but they also thrive in it. Here are our recommendations for cold-tolerant vegetables you can grow in zone 4.

Spinach

Spinach is one of those deceptive veggies that one wouldn’t associate with cold weather. But just because they have tender leaves that fit nicely in your salad and dip, that doesn’t mean you cannot grow them in zone 4. Keep in mind that this veggie will stop growing completely once the harsh winter weather sets in. But once the spring returns with its balmy days, the hardy spinach sprouts back with bright green leaves that are as succulent as they are delicious.

However, if the veggie is exposed to too many chill days in the winter, the leaves in the spring might look and feel rough. So cover them throughout the winter to protect the tender shoots you expect to harvest in the spring.

Carrots

This is another veggie that has remarkable hardiness against frigid cold temperatures. The secret for the carrots’ ability to withstand the harsh weather has to do with the sugar concentrations in the roots. In fact, the colder it gets, the more sugar builds up in the roots. That acts as a natural antifreeze that protects the roots even when other less-hardy plants succumb to the merciless winter of zone 4.

The key to a carrot patch success is to time your planting so that the veggies mature by the end of the fall. That way, neither frost nor chill days can damage them. In fact, the more you leave in the ground throughout the winter, the sweeter the carrots become. So you’ll have a fresh stock of the veggie all winter.

Lettuce

Say what you like about lettuce, no green salad worth its name can do without the succulent and crisp leaves of lettuce. But unlike carrots with their natural antifreeze, lettuce doesn’t have any natural buildup of sugar to protect it against the cold. However, as it turns out, the young lettuce veggies are more cold, hardy than the mature plants.

What this means is that you’ll have to time your lettuce planting either in late summer or early fall. That way, by the time the first frost hits, the young leaves have already sprouted. Harvest the leaves when they’re still tender and cover the plants during the winter to encourage them to keep growing new leaves.

Cabbage

Most gardeners are used to planting cabbage in the spring or summer and harvest it by early fall. But this hardy veggie also relishes chill days, and its leaves get crisper and more tender the colder the weather gets. In fact, many gardeners swear by winter cabbage. Some people favor that frost-touched cabbage as it has more flavors than spring or summer harvests. That makes cabbage an ideal veggie for zone 4 gardening.

It all comes down to selecting the right cabbage variety with high tolerance to cold weather. We recommend cultivars such as Marabel and January King, which don’t even need overwintering. Start your cabbage patch in the late summer so that the plants are well established by the first frost.

Swiss Chard

We talked before about Swiss chard and its famous tolerance to cold weather. In fact, this variety can stand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you haven’t had much success with other varieties of lettuce and you crave its delicious leaves in your salad in the winter, Swiss chard is the ideal candidate for your garden.

Some cultivars are more cold tolerant than others. I recommend giving Fordhook Giant and Verde de Tagleo a try and see how well they grow in your zone 4 garden. You can keep harvesting the tender leaves until the real winter. Once it gets too cold, you can cover the veggies with a thick layer of mulch until the next spring.

Leek is a close cousin of garlic. If you have planted garlic in the winter before and were pleasantly surprised with the outcome, then chances are leek is next on your gardening wishlist. That’s actually the secret behind the success of leek in the winter. It just keeps growing no matter how short the day is. Most other plants would go dormant or even die completely due to insufficient daylight. But not the hardy leek plants. They thrive even when the days are short, and the sun is nowhere to be seen.

But which leek variety to try? Experts recommend going for the blue-green cultivar since they can survive temperatures as low as 0 degrees F. Two blue-green varieties that you should consider in your zone 4 garden are Bandit and Blue de Solaise. The baby leeks of these varieties are milder in flavor and have less of a bite. You can add them to a green salad dish. When cooked with various pasta dishes, they infuse the pasta with a unique and wonderful taste.



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