Extending the Growing Season

Fall is almost upon us!

And with fall comes the first frost and the end of the gardening year.  Maybe.

Haven’t you ever thought that it might be nice to keep growing some of your own vegetables in the winter?  Yes, you can always go to the grocery store and buy what you need, but what fun is that?  Your produce is tastier and healthier than anything that the store has to offer.

Good news!  It’s not too late to start planning for a winter crop.  Nor is it too difficult.  All you need to think about is what to plant, how to protect it, and when to plant it.

What to Plant

Unless you are prepared for the cost of a regular hothouse, you’ll have the best results by sticking with cool-weather vegetables—peas, lettuce, carrots, radishes, beets, and the like.  These types of plants generally do not require much heat.  They often enough don’t even mind a little frost.  They just want some shelter from the worst of the freezing temperatures.

Warm-weather vegetables can sometimes be successfully grown over the winter without heat, but they require more protection and care than cool-season plants.  For your first experiments with season-extending techniques, you will probably want to stick with the cool-weather veggies.

How to Protect It

There are a number of ways to protect vegetables from the cold.  One of the most traditional techniques is to build a greenhouse.  In the old days, the greenhouse was heated both by the sun shining through the glass and by the energy of decomposing manure in the growing beds.  This is still a great solution, if you can afford the glass.  If not, try plastic.  As far as the manure goes, you don’t have to use it if you are willing to grow only cold-tolerant vegetables.

Another common season extender is the cold frame, which is basically the same thing on a smaller scale.  A cold frame’s sides can simply be whatever lumber you have on hand, surrounded by a thick layer of soil around the outside for insulation.  The top can be constructed out of plastic, or you can use an old storm door.  You won’t have a lot of growing space, but a cold frame is extremely easy to build.

If all of this construction of greenhouses and cold frames sounds like too much trouble, consider overwintering the plants you already have in the garden.  All you need is a lot of straw.  Simply bury your cold-tolerant vegetables in straw before a freeze hits.  Root crops do especially well with this treatment.  In fact, an easy way to overwinter root crops in the garden is to set a straw bale on top of them.  Uncover your overwintered vegetables on warm days to give them a little sun, and then bury them again at night.  As long as you use enough straw, most cool-season crops will last until spring.

When to Plant It

The ideal time to plant will depend on how much protection you can afford your vegetables.  Start by calculating the date you would normally plant a fall crop in the garden.  In general, you can plant a vegetable under one layer of protection about two weeks later than normal.  Two layers of protection allow you to plant it four weeks (about a month) later than normal.  Plants to be overwintered in the garden can usually be planted pretty close to the normal time for a fall crop.

So start planning and planting, and this winter you’ll reap the rewards!

Helpful Resources

Greenhouse Plans
Plans to build a variety of greenhouses and cold frames.

Building and Using Hotbeds and Cold Frames
Some good ideas from the University of Missouri Extension.

The Family Garden Journal