Last month we talked about how to extend your gardening season. If you haven’t already planted your fall and winter garden, you’re not too late. You can still plant lettuce, spinach and other greens right up until September 1st. Also start looking for broccoli, kale and cabbage starts at your local nursery and get them in the ground as soon as you can!!
This month I want to teach you about some very important materials and structures you need to extend your gardening season into the fall and winter months. There are three simple methods for extending your season, first fabric row covers, second mini hoop houses, and third cold frames. Let’s talk about each in order of the level of protection they provide.
Floating Fabric Row Covers
Floating row covers are the simplest and least expensive of our season extension options. Floating row covers are agricultural fabrics produced in a variety of weights and materials. You can find row covers at many garden centers or online. They come in many different sizes but for most garden applications you should be able to find pieces that are roughly 5’ x 20’. A piece that size will usually be under $10.00! For fall and winter applications you want to buy the heaviest weight you can find. The thicker the material the more cold protection you will get.
You can get as fancy as you want with row covers. I’ve seen folks who build simple wire hoops and then attach the fabric to the hoops. But for me that’s too much work. We simply use the row fabrics to cover our crops when there is a threat of frost. It’s light weight so you can throw it over your lettuce bed and hold down the edges with a few rocks or bricks so it doesn’t blow away in the wind. The heavier row covers offer around 6 to 8 degrees of protection. So on those frosty fall evenings your plants will be protected down to as low as 26 degrees!
Fabric row covers are also super handy to use to protect your warm season crops from an early freeze. It happens every year around our place. We will have a night in late September that gets down below freezing which will be followed by 2 weeks of nice warm weather. If it weren’t for the protection of our row covers we would lose our tomato, melon, and squash plants and miss out on that last couple of weeks of ripening time. Some years we are able to keep our tomato plants producing well past the 3rd week of October, almost a month past our first frost date!!
Mini Hoop Houses
Hoop houses offer the next level of protection. Again these can be as simple or complicated as you want to make them. Basically a hoop house is 4 to 6 “hoops” covered with a plastic. We make our hoops fairly inexpensively by using four 10 foot lengths of PVC pipe (available at any home improvement center) with a piece of 1” x 1” wood as a ridge poll. We then cover the structure with 10 mil clear painters plastic and use some simple clamps to hold the plastic to the hoops. The longer you are planning on leaving your hoop up the stronger you need to build it. If it is only going to be up through November then you may be able to get away with simply sticking the hoops in the ground. If you want it stay up all winter then you will need to be sure that the structure is strong enough to endure the wind and snow winter has to offer. You can head over to my blog for some more ideas on building a hoop house. You can easily build a hoop house for around $30.00
Hoop houses offer a higher level of protection from both the wind and cold. You can combine a hoop house and fabric row covers for an added level of protection. We have found hoop houses handy for our late fall crops. Plants like broccoli, cabbage, carrots and kale do very well in a hoop house. But our experience has been that you should only plant your hardiest crops in hoop houses. Ultimately they don’t offer as much protection from the cold as our next season extension option, the cold frame.
Cold frames offer the most protection of the three options. A cold frame is basically a wooden box with some type of glass top. Again, you can make it as simple or complicated as you would like. You can also make them any size to fit your garden beds. A few things to keep in mind when building a cold frame:
- Usually cold frames are no more than 12 to 15 inches tall. This keeps them low and out of the wind
- Whenever possible the top should slope to the south. This lets in the maximum amount of light
- Plexi glass is much lighter and less likely to break than actual glass. So if you are going buy something for your cold frame lid buy plexi glass. But don’t let that stop you from using that old storm door you have lying around, that can be perfect for a cold frame lid
You can jump over to Stoney Acres to see how we built our 3 cold frames. If you are building from scratch and using plexi glass tops, plan on spending around $130 dollars to build one.
Build your cold frame so that it can simply sit on top of the soil over your garden beds. Fill in any gaps so that the wind can’t get in and your plants will be tucked in for a long cold winter!
Cold frames are perfect for all your low growing crops. Carrots, spinach, Swiss chard, Asian greens, lettuce and Mache all love a cold frame. If you live in an area where it gets really cold in the winter you can even add a row cover inside your cold frame during those months when you never see the temperatures rise above freezing. This will give you some added protection.
Here’s a warning; if you want to build a hoop house or cold frame for your garden, you need to be prepared to manage the temperatures inside the structure in the fall and spring. If someone isn’t going to be around during the day then be sure to open up your hoop house before you leave for work on days that will be over 50 degrees. You would be amazed how hot it can get in a hoop house or a cold frame on a sunny 60 degree day. If you don’t open it up your plants might just get cooked inside a 95 degree cold frame!!
I really hope you have enjoyed these last two posts on season extension. It’s a fun part of gardening that many people over look. Two posts don’t even scratch the surface of all the information out there on winter gardening. I’m very happy to field any questions at my own blog; ourstoneyacres.com or right here in the comments section on Bakerette!
Next month we will look at what we can do in the fall to get our main garden ready for planting next spring!!