Here in our zone we get roughly 150 days of frost free weather. Which, is great, but we want more. Thankfully, there are ways to extend that frost free period. Here’s how to extend your growing season so you can grow food longer into the cold months (and earlier in the spring).
10 Ways to Extend Your Garden Season
Whether you dream of starting your garden earlier in the spring or growing food well into the winter, there are definitely some ways to lengthen that season on both ends.
Start Seedlings Indoors
Starting seedlings indoors can give you a huge jump start on growing. In fact, in places like here in Indiana, we have no choice but to start things like tomatoes indoors. Their growing season is far too long to grow here, otherwise.
Look at the length of season what you’re trying to grow needs, then work backward from your first frost date. That will help you decide when you need to start certain seeds. Things like onions need started really early (10 weeks or so before your last expected frost). Other things just need sprouted up a little before hand.
If you have a south-facing window, you may not need a grow light, but I recommend them. For things like peppers and tomatoes, you can shorten their germination time by using a heat mat as well.
The downside to starting seeds indoors? They take up space. If you garden on the scale we do, that space comes at a premium and we simply don’t have much space for it… but, we make do until we can come up with an alternative plan.
Utilize Cold Hardy Types
Some stuff does really, really well in the cooler weather. Things like peas and lettuce can even withstand a little frost and snow.
Knowing what varieties do well in cooler temps can help you plan your garden. This knowledge can also help you achieve larger yields as well as extend the season by utilizing these plants in your early spring and fall gardens.
Some veggies can be planted as soon as the soil is workable, use that to your advantage so you can get those cooler weather crops sown directly into the garden and give them time to grow before the hot weather hits and causes them to stop producing, or bolt.
We used to garden exclusively in raised beds. Then, we used traditional rows. This year we added a ton of raised beds around our row garden (and it’s beautiful, if I do say so myself). Raised beds have tons of advantages one being they warm faster and stay warm later.
I can work the soil in my raised beds much, much earlier than I can work the soil in our traditional garden. This makes a huge difference in my ability to plant things like spinach and lettuce when the soil is just workable. At least a couple weeks time.
While you can heat your garden up with black plastic (and a lot of people swear by that method and it IS an option), I prefer use our raised beds to plant those cool weather crops. This allows for succession planting (they’re empty early enough to plant something else) as well as an extension on our season on both ends of the spectrum.
Cold frames are a great idea to protect crops from early fall frosts. Cold frames are simple, small, rectangular boxes that sit directly on the soil (there’s no bottom) and are covered with an old window, a piece of clear plastic, or similar.
These mini-greenhouses create a microclimate to keep your vegetables warm enough to continue producing and not go dormant. These simple structures can extend your growing season about 60 days on either side. Allowing you to start veggies much earlier outdoors and continue growing veggies well past your first frost into the winter.
Lettuces, herbs, and brassicas all do really well in cold frames (your typical early spring and fall crops). You will need to vent them on warm days, simply pop the top open a bit to allow fresh air to vent through.
While greenhouses can be costly and take up a lot of space, they also provide you with year-round growing potential and a place to start all those seeds indoors.
Even in the coldest of winters you can grow things like carrots, brassicas, greens, radishes and a few other cool-loving vegetables.
Greenhouses also give you the benefit of protection. So, those small tender seedlings won’t get massacred by your chickens (hopefully) or knocked down by strong, spring winds (unless, of course, it knocks down your whole greenhouse.
They can also extend the growing season of some of your hot weather-loving friends. We plan to add our own later this fall or next spring (when we can afford it remains unknown) and I’m truly excited to expand our growing space, extend our season to year round, and not have to start our seeds inside where our 3 year old tries to play with them.
Unlike greenhouses, high tunnels don’t provide a year-round growing season. But, they will extend it about 6-8 weeks, which is great.
A high tunnel is a simple structure typically made out of steel hoops to make the frame that are covered in a thin layer of polyethelene (a semi-clear, thin plastic). They are tall enough to walk through and good for vining plants like peas and even tomatoes. Of course, you can grow shorter veggies in them as well.
These are a low-cost alternative to greenhouses, though they won’t allow you to garden year-round. They are fairly inexpensive and an economical way to extend that season. They need to be vented on warm days just like a cold frame (just move the ends out of the way).
Row Covers & Low Tunnels
Low tunnels are short hoops covered with polyethelene (or row covers). You cannot walk through these, but the idea is exactly the same as a high tunnel and their construction is similar (though, much shorter).
These give about the same protection, and therefore same season extension, as a high tunnel. You can make these to grow your greens and such well into the winter without them taking up a ton of space. These also give the benefit of added pest control, which… none of us like dealing with pests in the garden (including birds, right?).
Inexpensive and super easy to construct some simple, flexible PVC pipe and thin plastic sheeting and you’ve got yourself a low tunnel. Like the cold frames and high tunnels, vent them when needed (simply lift the ends or roll up the bottom part way).
Hot caps & cloches
“Cloche” means bell in French and is a bell-shaped dome that you place over a plant. These “hot caps” as we typically call them in the states are just mini-greenhouses for individual plants.
Anything from soda bottles and milk jugs to actual purchased waxed-paper hot caps can protect small seedlings in the garden early in the spring. This is a really simple, inexpensive way to start seeds outdoors fairly early and not need to transplant them later. The catch is, things that require a long growing season are going to be far too large to fit under the cloche as long as they will require protection. It works for smaller seedlings, though.
To use soda bottles or milk jugs, simply cut the bottom off and put them centered over the top of your seed (or sprouted seedling). Remove the lid during the day to vent, replace it at night. Most purchased hot caps have vents, if yours don’t, put a couple slits in the top of it so it can vent.
They have more expensive glass cloches available as well, these are great because they won’t blow away in a strong, spring storm. You can anchor your homemade or inexpensive plastic cloches to the ground by burying them or stake them into the ground.
Cold frames can be turned into hot beds by utilizing soil heating tape. To do this simply layer a sheet of styrofoam insulation, cover it with a couple inches of sand, then cover that with soil. Put the heat tape on top, add another layer of sand and cover that with 6 inches of loam.
Just make sure your hot bed is near enough to an electrical outlet that you can turn it on!
These can be used to transplant some veggies to in the spring so that they’ll mature faster. Simply remove the cold frame, turn off the heat tape, and use the bed like you would any other raised bed.
Yep, mulching. It’s last, but certainly not least. And it has so many benefits. Keep the weeds away, keep the moisture in, and keep the soil warm and protect those roots.
Mulching also allows your soil to warm faster and stay warm longer. Honestly, every garden needs mulch (and mine has none as we speak). If you have raised beds, maybe not (because they won’t freeze as quickly and they thaw more quickly). But any bed on the ground definitely needs mulched.
In some areas, if you have a 2-3 foot layer of mulch, you can grow certain plants even throughout the winter. So, add some mulch if you haven’t. You’ll be so glad you did.
Regardless of which method(s) you choose to extend your growing season, start simple and small. Add a nice thick layer of mulch, make a low tunnel, something simple and inexpensive and go from there. Take your time and improve season after season and you’ll be gardening year-round before you know it!
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