If you’re here it’s probably because you’re just as obsessed with gardening as the rest of us and you want to know how to keep this going beyond September and October. Maybe you live somewhere that has short seasons (like me) and you don’t want to let your thumb turn brown over winter? That’s what happens to me every year. I feel as though the majority of my gardening knowledge the past few years has gone to things like, “how to start growing plants as early as possible and keep them going as long as possible.”
I see friends in other states talking about how they get their first harvests in June and here in Colorado where our last frost date is usually Mother’s Day…my plants are barely started in June. By the time they hit their prime, we’re getting our first snows of the year in September. Basically…it’s just not fair! I want the long gorgeous Fall growing seasons I see in movies…where people’s plants are not bothered by pests, diseases, weird climates, and short seasons. I want the perfect amount of time. At the end of October, I want to feel like the plants are only just barely beginning to slow instead of starting to worry the minute Labor Day hits. Last week, Colorado had it’s the first snowstorm the day after Labor Day and we are still reeling from the effects of the season feeling short, trees losing leaves before they even turn colors and the loss of so many potential squashes.
However, there are ways to keep your kitchen gardens growing as long as possible into the winter. As an experienced short seasoned grower I’m going to talk about a few of the things I’ve done over the years that help me feel like I’m a gardener all year round and not just longing for seed catalogs to arrive in winter (although that is truly one of my favorite times).
Raised Beds – While having higher beds may not seem like a big deal, it can actually help you extend your gardening season earlier into the spring. Instead of waiting to plant until the last frost date, you can often plant a bit earlier. Soils warm sooner and earlier when they are in raised beds rather than planting directly into the ground. This has been a simple tool that’s helped me add a couple of weeks onto my season every year. It also helps to have them on higher ground in general rather than the lowest area of your yard. Frost tends to settle in low-lying areas so anything you can do to make your garden higher will help; whether it be planting it in the highest part of your yard, or raising the ground with raised beds.
Container Gardens – An easy way to extend your season is to save a few big pots for a container garden. If a frost hits your garden early in the season and delays your start or ends it earlier than you’d like in the Fall, you can always have a few backup plants in containers ready to take inside and save as long as you can with warm weather. After being hit with this early snowstorm last week, it’s made me rethink planting one or two squashes, tomatoes, beans, or a few things in containers that I can easily snag and bring inside if I need to sacrifice the rest of the garden to the weather. Containers can also help you start a few plants earlier in the season too. Rather than planting at the last frost date, you can plant much earlier and bring your plants in at night, while they enjoy the warm temperatures and sunshine outside during the day.
Row Covers – I am so glad I invested in row covers this year. These are a fantastic way to plant in-ground and extend your season into both spring and fall every year. Grab yourself a few row hoops on Amazon or from your local store and some greenhouse plastic. Cut to the shapes of your rows and gardens and you’re done! The best part is when you use these in combination with your raised beds. My greenhouse plastic is attached to one side of the beds and rolls up on the side when not in use. When I need it I can pop in the hoops, cover and weigh it down and I’m all set. Greenhouse plastic and row covers can increase your temperatures an average of at least eight degrees. This can help prevent frosts at night and when covered during the day, can heat up your plants for exponential early growth in spring. Additionally, it can help your plants ripen their last fruits at the end of the season.
Greenhouses – An easy way to start and finish your gardening season and extend it as much as possible is to use a greenhouse to start plants in spring, or plant all year round in.
Cold Frames – Cold frames are like mini-greenhouses. I live on about a tenth of an acre and can’t fit a greenhouse along with our apiary, chicken run, vegetable gardens, and everything else. Cold frames are an easy way for me to get my season started and keep my plants protected. They also allow me to plant a few cool weather crops in the Fall, button them up easily at night, and let them enjoy the warm air during the daytime as long as possible. If there’s a cold day or a snowstorm, I can just shut the lid and come back to it later. Cold frames are something you can build and add to a raised bed, build separately, or purchase separately. My husband built ours with a few old windows and this will be our first season using them. I can’t wait to grow a few winter crops in them like lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, and more. I’ll be surrounding them with bales of hay for extra insulation, filling them with soil, and crossing my fingers. Even if my winter crops don’t go well, I plan on using them for my plant starters in March and April this year, transplanting the plants into the main garden in May.
Hopefully early fall snows and late spring freezes will not be as scary for those of us who work hard on our gardens the rest of the year only to watch them die overnight!