Garden season extenders allow northern gardeners to grow crops of warm-weather plants like tomatoes and peppers longer in the fall, grow cool-weather crops through the winter and start our spring gardens earlier.
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Garden season extenders, in the form of row covers, cloches, or cold frames, have become an integral part of my garden in the spring and fall. When I read Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of The Cascades years ago it inspired me to try and lengthen the typical harvest window for our area (PNW zone 8).
I even, briefly, flirted with the idea of year-around gardening. But only briefly, as I learned this important fact about myself:
I don’t want to be out in the garden when it’s 35 degrees and raining.
As much as I wish I could enjoy cold-weather gardening, I’d much rather be knitting in front of a fire (though if I could have a huge greenhouse attached to my house so I never had to walk outside like Elliot Coleman, then I definitely would have a winter garden).
So I use season extenders mainly in the fall and throughout the spring in the following ways:
- Plant cool-weather crops like spinach, lettuce, onions, and peas in the ground as early as possible, covering with floating row covers or plastic tunnels to protect from both heavy rain and light frosts.
- Use a cold frame to help harden off my seedlings in spring.
- Place floating row covers on brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) and tomatoes to protect from weather and pests.
- Cover warm-loving peppers with a DIY hoop house.
- Experiment with fall and overwintered crops, covering with row covers (overwintering is when you plant a variety in the fall that grows slowly all winter and starts producing in early spring- the two I’ve had the most success with are cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli).
Below you’ll find different tools to use to extend your harvests, how to use them, and how they’ve worked for me. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Using Garden Season Extenders
1. Wall-O-Waters come in both a green and a red version (the red is supposed to help the fruit ripen faster). Use these to protect tomatoes and peppers in early spring in order to have ripe fruit sooner and a longer harvest season.
I found these to be a great option in my first, smaller garden for the six tomatoes I planted in the 3’x6′ beds. There was a lot more early growth using these than my neighbors who didn’t use them. In fact, the year I got closest to the “4th of July Ripe Tomato” goal (I think it was the 10th) was the result of planting in mid-April in Wall-O-Waters.
(Note: to be clear, there are a LOT of people in my area who plant tomatoes out in mid-April without any protection but they don’t like it and don’t grow very well. However, they don’t die, so people keep doing it…)
The drawback? It takes A LOT of time to fill all those water chambers. When I planted 18 tomatoes the first year in my larger garden, I started covering the tomatoes like usual but had to call it quits after two hours, frozen hands, and only 10 plants covered.
So I moved onto this option for tomatoes:
2. Floating Row Covers are wonderful for not only extending the harvest, but also to:
- keep cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, & cabbage) from being infested with aphids and cabbage loopers and to give them a healthier start.
- cover tomatoes in the early spring (this replaced the individual Wall-o-Waters in my garden).
- protect early sowings of lettuce and spinach and to keep the rain from ruining the late lettuce.
- and even to protect newly planted seed beds from cats and birds.
They are simple and adaptable to use: you can rest the row covers directly on top of crops or use small metal or pvc hoops to hold it over planted rows or raised beds, as seen in the lower photo above. Secure the edges with rocks or garden staples and it will keep the bugs out, too, until the plants outgrow it.
3. Cold Frames: Adding cold frames to your garden, whether permanent like the wooden box pictured on the left or portable like the reasonably-priced fabric option on the right, are really good for a couple things:
- to help harden-off seedlings
- to be able to start lettuce and greens earlier (in less soggy soil)
- to keep harvesting greens and smaller items well into the fall and maybe even winter.
If you are up for making them yourselves, this article links to a number of different ways to make DIY cold frames.
A word of caution, though, about making frames with old windows (like we did…) – they do not last more than a season before the glazing disintegrates and the glass falls out, shattering on it’s way down. #liveandlearn
For smaller gardens or herb gardens, cloches may be a good way to protect a few plants and look good doing it. In addition to the standard jar shape, they come in a rectangular version with individual air vents to help regulate the temperature, so in some gardens, these may be the way to go. The plastic is heavy enough that they could be used over and over again.
Do you use cloches, covers, or cold frames or have any plans to?
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