We consider two factors that affect the mixed layer depth (MLD) and potentially contribute to phytoplankton sustenance over winter—variability of air?sea fluxes and three?dimensional processes arising from horizontal density gradients (fronts). The role of these two factors is addressed using several three?dimensional idealized numerical simulations in a process study ocean model forced with air?sea fluxes at different temporal averaging frequencies. Results show that in winter, when the average mixed layer is much deeper than the euphotic layer and the period of daylight is short, phytoplankton production is relatively insensitive to high?frequency variability in air?sea fluxes. Short?lived stratification events during light?limited conditions have very little impact on phytoplankton production. On the other hand, the slumping of fronts shallows the mixed layer in a patchy manner and the associated restratification persists considerably longer than that caused by changes in air?sea fluxes. Simulations with fronts show that in winter, the average MLD is about 600 m shallower than simulations without fronts. Prior to spring warming, the depth?integrated phytoplankton concentration in the model with fronts is about twice as large as the case without fronts. Hence, even in winter, restratification by fronts is important for setting the MLD; it increases the residence time of phytoplankton in the euphotic layer and contributes to phytoplankton growth, thereby sustaining phytoplankton populations in winter. Higher model resolution intensifies submesoscale dynamics, leading to stronger restratification, shallower mixed layers, greater variability in the MLD, and more production of phytoplankton.