Monday, September 26, 2011

Extending the growing season

As our days have gotten shorter, and the nights have gotten cooler, so comes to follow the adaptation of our fall gardening habits. Some of us in anticipation of next season, proactively ready our gardens for the spring with fall plantings. Some in effort to hang on to the season, dwell while our summer veggie surplus dwindles down to lone stragglers, our tomato plants still fruiting green with hope and confusion. But as Master Gardener Jen Ryan taught in September's Second Saturday Gardening Series; some of us, are only getting started…

Did you know that you (yes you!) can grow cool tolerant vegetables, All. Winter. Long?

I know, I didn’t believe it either, but Jen Ryan has been growing cool tolerant veggies in a homemade lean-to made out of old windows insulated with bubble wrap for a while now. Old Windows? Bubble wrap? What can I say, we urban gardeners are the resourceful type.

So how does this work? First, as Jen Ryan explains, you have to maximize the amount of light your plants will receive in the course of a day by placing them in areas that get the maximum amount of light for the season; for our area that means south and southwest facing areas.

Second, you need to insulate your plants. There are many ways to do this. There are cold frames, and there are really cold frames. They come in all different sizes and variations. From Cloches, which cover individual plants to cold frames, which cover square foot gardens as large as you care to make them, but since these are covered with old windows, they are usually made to fit the window. You simply cover your plants in the ground, and keep an eye on their temperature. The goal is to keep your plants from freezing, around (ºF- ºF). How do you know what the temp is? you need a good thermometer, which may be around $30.00. But the good news for frugal types is that you can use anything from blankets, bubble wrap, reemay fabric, clear plastic wrap, or small animals (no kidding!): to insulate your plants, it may take a season to find out what works for you.    

Third, you need to be able to vent. This is very important as the cold frames can get too hot for cool season veggies. There are a few venting options: all with varying degrees of supervision involved.

Fourth, you need to know what you can grow and when you can start planting it. Surprisingly, some plants have less germination time with consistent cold temperatures then when temperatures went from warm to cold. See the very interesting germination chart by Eliot coleman:

Cool Season crops:
beets, green onions, potatoes, parsnips, radishes,
salsify, and turnips and greens like Swiss chard,
Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, collards, and lettuce

Cold Season crops:
broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, roots of carrots,
rutabagas,onions, leeks, salad greens, peas
(but not the pods), garlic and shallots
Please visit: the Penn State's Fact sheet on hardiness
classification of vegetables by clicking here

I for one am grateful for the knowledge I gained from attending this month's second saturday presentation, because it affected me personally. I dont like winter, for so many reasons, but the main one is the sad loss of seasonal gardening. Season extending gives me gardening hope instead of the tribulations of depressing winter weather to look forward to. Its like saying "Summer is taking a hiatus, so dont lament the end of your growing season, simply start a new one!" Alice Morse Earle, an 18th century author is best quoted in saying " Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of imagination. You are always living three, or indeed six, months into the future. I believe that people entirely devoid of imagination can never be really good gardeners. To be content with the present, and not striving about the future, is fatal.." I like to think how proud Alice would be if alive today, to see a whole crop of urban gardeners embracing their winter months, with bubble wrap.