Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Keep Gardening: Tips to Get You Through Fall and Winter

I love fall and winter. I really do. But I do not love the end of garden season.

As of late, I have just enough cherry tomatoes to make a salad; I have to purchase cucumbers, lettuce, and broccoli at the farmers’ market, and even more of my garden veggies are on the decline. So what am I going to do? Extend my garden season, of course.

I am a full-time working mom with a long commute and a dedication to homemade dinners. Additionally, I am not very talented when it comes to building and woodworking. So with little time, little money, and no building skills, I am going to create a winter garden.

Okay, honestly, I plan to do this. It is said that if you announce your goals to others you are more likely to achieve them. I, of course, will keep you posted on how this all turns out. It is also said that one is more likely to do something if others do it, too (hint, hint).

Here are some tips and ideas to get us started. Let’s give some of these a try!

Row Covers
A row cover is simply a piece of lightweight, semitransparent fabric that is most often constructed from spun-bonded polypropylene or polyester. In spring and fall it’s used to protect tender crops from frost. Lay the fabric directly on top of the plants or support them above the crops on hoops (or make shift frames — I think I’ll use tomato stakes).
A row cover is an easy way to protect tender crops from early-spring or 
late-fall frosts. Lay the fabric directly on top of the plants or support them
above the crops on hoops.
Photograph © Joseph De Sciose

Layer of Organic Material
In late fall spread a 12-inch-thick layer of shredded leaves or seedless straw over a crop and top it with a medium- or heavyweight row cover. This works well for carrots, parsnips, beets, celeriac, turnips, and leeks.
This bed of super-sweet ‘Napoli’ carrots is ready for old man winter.
The soil was topped with a foot of shredded leaves, then covered
with a row cover, which was secured by rocks and fabric staples.

Cloches and Hot Caps
A cloche is simply a miniature greenhouse that is placed over a plant to protect it from cold weather. It can be used as a plant incubator — to place over young seedlings or tender vegetables — or as a plant protector. A plant protector is a cloche that is placed over a plant to shield it from imminent frost, heavy rain, strong winds, and hail. These are temporary situations, and the cloches are only needed overnight or for a few days.

Homemade cloche ideas:
One-gallon plastic juice bottles, milk cartons, mason jars, large buckets, 68-ounce soda bottles, and plastic salad containers. You can even use a glass punch bowl. If you are just using it overnight or for very short periods of time, the cloche does not need to be clear. If, however, it will be used for extended periods of time, use clear glass or plastic, and remove labels to allow for maximum light.
Single-serving-size ‘Tom Thumb’ lettuces are protected
from late-autumn frost by inexpensive plastic cloches. 

Thrifty gardeners will find success using recycled juice
or soda bottles to protect newly planted vegetables.

Cold Frames
Cold frames are incredibly useful and can be used in most gardens year-round. The most basic cold frame is simply a box with a clear or translucent top. Its purpose is to trap solar energy and provide protection from the elements. Some take a carpenter to build, and others don’t even require a hammer. I prefer the latter.

Here are two cheap and easy-to-build cold frame ideas:
  1. Cinderblock cold frame. Surround your crops with cinderblocks (open holes facing skyward) with an old sliding glass door on top. I used this in the spring to get my peas, onions, leeks, kale, brussels sprouts, and Swiss chard started. I left the cinderblocks surrounding the row, but removed the door once the frost threat was over. I then filled some of the cinderblock holes with garden soil and planted dill and basil in them: container herbs and a mini raised garden row — double bonus!
  2. Straw-bale cold frame. Same idea as the cinderblock. Surround your plants or garden row with bales, and cover with clear plastic or lightweight glass (old windows and doors work well).
An easy-to-build straw-bale cold frame is a good way
to overwinter tall crops such as kale and leeks.
Fall Garden Tips:
Extend your tomato season by covering your well-staked tomato beds with a sheet of clear plastic or the individual plants with large plastic tomato bags. If a killing frost is predicted, pick all the remaining tomatoes, and wrap them individually in newspaper or paper bags and store them in a cool dry spot. They will ripen slowly over the next few weeks, but check them occasionally to make sure they haven’t rotted.

Fall is the time to plant spinach. Sow seed from mid-August to mid-September (sorry, we’re a little late here, but it might be worth a try) for a fall crop that can be overwintered with little protection. Give plants about 6 weeks of growth before hard frosts arrive. In mid-October, cover the spinach bed with a mini hoop house. About a month later add a layer of plastic to the top of the fabric. Swiss chard can be planted along with the spinach.

Sow winter lettuce in cold frames from late summer to early fall. Arctic King (butterhead), Four Seasons (butterhead), Red Salad Bowl (oak leaf), Slobolt (looseleaf), Winter Marvel (butterhead), and Winter Density (buttercos) are all great varieties for cold-weather harvesting.

Plant garlic in October in the Northeast. Pick a sunny spot with well-drained soil, work in aged manure or compost to the bed. Planting ideally occurs 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes to allow for a strong root system to develop. Once the ground freezes (usually early December), cover with 3 to 4 inches of shredded leaves or other organic mulch.
I’ll let you know how my efforts turn out. Please let me know how yours work for you. Also, post any other cheap and easy winter gardening tips in the comment section below — we’d love to hear ‘em!

Photographs, tips, and ideas excerpted from The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener © 2011 by Nikki Jabbour.

If you live in the Northwest, Sista’s blog, Welcome to the Hen House, has some great fall and winter garden tips.


sista said...

I love your tips although I didn't have very good luck last year with the plastic bottle cloche. The plants froze overnight. I just did a winter garden post myself on Cole crops and how to keep the green caterpillars and grey aphid from taking over. You may like to check it out.

Jeremy Miles said...

I'm also using Fruit Cage to protect my fruits from insects and pests that tend to eat it. The fruits will be in good condition when it is ready to be harvest.