Create a longer growing season for your vegetable garden

Season extending tools and techniques to try this year in the garden.

Living this far north in the United States often shortens the number of growing days we have to grow some vegetable crops. There are several things a gardener can do to extend the growing season in the spring and in the fall.

Spring

Use frost protection so sensitive crops can go into the garden earlier. Listening to the weather report for each night is critical to knowing when to cover vulnerable plants. They can be carefully covered with newspapers, old sheets or blankets. The cover should snuggle against the mulch or be tight to the soil to keep out cold air. Use sticks or stakes as props. Don’t allow the weight of the cover to smash plants. The covering must be removed in the morning so plants don’t cook under their covers. But if the covers are removed too early in the day, plants still get frosted.

Other choices for spring protection when covering plants are:

  • Milk jugs. Cut the bottom out of the jug and cover the plant. Leave the cap off during the day for heat to be released but put the cap on at night to retain heat. Tie the handle to a stake so the jug does not blow away.
  • Hot caps. These are purchased waxed paper domes for covering small plants. Stake them down so they do not blow away. They may be available online or locally.
  • Floating row covers. These are large sheets of spun fabric that can be put over rows in the evening to give some light frost protection. Weight down the edges.
  • Plastic tunnel. Electrical conduit or heavy wire is bent into hoops to support the covering plastic row cover. The edges of the plastic are covered with soil. During the day, the ends of the tunnel are open but closed at night.
  • Wall-o-water. This commercially available product is a series of connected polyethylene tubes that are joined to create a cylinder. When placed over an individual plant, the tubes are filled two-thirds of the way with water. The top of the cylinder leans in to almost close the top. During the day, the water absorbs heat and at night releases it. When the plant gets tall enough to touch the sides, tubes are filled all the way up with water and the cylinder will stand vertically. This stays in place until all danger of frost has passed.

Fall

In the fall, you will be covering larger plants. Old cloth sheets or blankets will be necessary to provide adequate protection. These usually involve covering plants at night to protect them. But do not cover plants with plastic sheeting or poly tarps as they collect moisture inside and cause the plants to freeze more rapidly.

Use stakes to support the weight of the cover. It may be possible to flip cardboard boxes upside down over the top of small plants. Put a brick or rock on top to keep the box in place.

Keep in mind that if the night temperature dips to 32°F or lower, many of these frost protection coverings may fail.

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