Think end of summer means end of gardening season? Think again. If you plan accordingly, you can harvest fresh veggies in many areas of the country well after the first frost, if not throughout the winter. Check out our tips for selecting the most likely candidates for extended growing and some techniques to keep homegrown produce on your table just a little bit longer:
- Know your zone. Plants that survive in cooler temperature vary by region. Make sure to reference your growing zone from the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to choose the plants that flourish where you are located.
- Some veggies tolerate frost. Cold-tolerant varieties of broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, peas, carrots, parsnips, spinach, radishes and parsley have the ability to survive light frosts (28 degrees to 32 degrees) and hard frosts (below 28 degrees). These are considered hardy vegetables and will be marked as frost-tolerant on seed packets and seedling plant tags.
- Some veggies even like frost. Some vegetables like parsnips, Brussels sprouts and carrots can actually become tastier after a frost. Because of dissolved salts, sugars and enzymes, some plants express a natural “anti-freeze” that gives them a sweet taste. This is why some growers may tell you to wait until after a light frost to harvest fall carrots or why spring parsnips that have overwintered are considered the prize of spring harvest.
You can protect your crops from cold weather by using simple structures or coverings in the garden to insulate them. Try your hand at one or more of these easy fixes for extending the life of your garden:
- Low tunnels (hoop supported). These inexpensive structures, also known as “quick hoops,” arch over raised beds or in-ground plantings to form a makeshift mini-greenhouse, which is then covered with protective fabric. Make a low tunnel by bending anything you have handy, from pvc pipe to wire, to create an easy, workable dome shape that your vegetables can grow under comfortably as temperatures drop. Cover the hoops with pretty much any durable, weatherproof material, like polyester-based fabric or thick plastic.
- Floating row covers. Using light- and water-penetrable material that typically lies directly on plants, this method traps energy from the soil and contains residual heat within the blanket. The edges of the covering can be weighed down by rocks or dirt, and the trapped heat can raise temperatures underneath by up to 7 degrees. While that doesn’t sound like much, just a few degrees of residual heat can extend your growing season by four to five weeks. This is a very easy way to extend the growing season on a budget. Bonus: It keeps out bugs!
- Cold frames. A more ready-made solution, cold frames are walled-in enclosures close to the ground that look like display cases for your plants. The transparent surface lets in light and is usually angled to melt snow or freezing rain that collects there. Originally used to store tropical plants in northern climates and as outdoor greenhouses to start seeds, these versatile structures can also overwinter your favorite cool season crops.
If you are looking to explore more techniques, reach for the bible of season extension, Elliot Coleman’s “Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long.” If he can harvest vegetables in Maine winters, you can do it too! Experiment and play in the science lab that is your garden to extend the season and enjoy fresh veggies even as temperatures get chilly.