Your region may endure months of frigid weather, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to harvest fresh produce out of the backyard garden. The previous post shared some of the hardy varieties grown by Niki Jabbour in her Nova Scotia garden; today I’ll cover some of the equipment and devices that she uses to stretch those growing seasons!
Niki refers to them as Sneaky Season Extenders but in my mind they are just brilliant and ingenious in the way that they allow the backyard gardener to grow crops in spite of harsh weather conditions. They also provide the flexibility of easily moving the devices from one place in the garden to another, and you have many options to purchase them ready-made or to build your own.
Everything from Cloches to Mulches for Protecting the Garden
Cloches are simple devices designed to fit directly over top of crops and create “individual plant protectors.” You may have seen the traditional glass bell shaped cloches in photographs of vintage vegetable gardens. I still love the look of those heavy-weight versions but today you’re more likely to find plastic materials and a wider variety of shapes and sizes that make them even more useful and practical.
For the do-it-yourself-er it’s a snap to create a functional cloche out of empty soda bottles or plastic milk gallon containers. Simply cut the bottoms off of the containers and they are ready to be sunk over top of individual plants, and the removable caps function as your ventilation control.
For a modern, commercial take on cloches Niki gives a nod to the wall-o-water style cloche that wraps tubes of water around plants to warm the soil and protect plants even as temps fall below freezing. Cloches are great for frost protection during early spring.
Blanketing the Growing Beds with Floating Row Covers
Row Covers are lightweight semitransparent fabrics spun out of polypropylene or polyester fibers. They allow water, light, and air to pass through but hold onto warmth and offer some wind protection. Row Covers come in several thicknesses for use in various seasons, and in addition to offering weather protection, they are also used as a barrier to keep animal and insect pests away from crops.
Row Covers are made in different widths to accommodate the garden layout and easily cover an entire garden bed or a number of rows of plants. The fabric is light enough to “float” right on top of plants without causing any damage, or it can be suspended over wire hoops or PVC tubing to form low tunnels. Anchor the fabric to the ground with staples, boards, rocks, or soil to keep it in place.
The latest materials are a lot more durable than the fleecy fabrics that were originally produced. This gives you the advantage of a row cover that will hold up and can be used over a number of years with just a little care in handling. These materials are more of a mesh than a fabric and are a bit more expensive but well worth the difference in price.
Mini Hoop Tunnels are Perfect for Taller Crops and Colder Conditions
Mini Hoop Tunnels are similar to supported Row Covers but are typically larger and use plastic covers or greenhouse films rather than the lighter weight fabrics. Hoop tunnels are easy to construct and can be set up or removed relatively quickly. It’s best to use sturdy supports such as PVC tubing or even metal conduit bent into shape. The covering material should be attached more securely to ensure that it remains in place and sheds water runoff.
It’s not an issue during winter, but row covers and tunnels need to be opened or removed when crops are flowering in order to allow insects access to pollinate the plants as necessary. The hoop tunnels also need to be ventilated on warmer spring and fall days to prevent plants from over heating.
I have experimented and had success with using a double walled Mini Hoop Tunnel… a tunnel within a tunnel. The inner tunnel covered with a heavyweight fabric is underneath of an outer hoop tunnel covered with greenhouse film. This set up is great for protecting hardy crops through the coldest months of the year.
Cold Frames: the All-Around Favorite for Cold Season Production
Cold Frames are Niki’s favorite and mine also for fall and winter production in the veggie garden. Basically a box with a clear top, a cold frame can be as simple as an old window sash over a base made of straw bales, or as high-tech as commercial units utilizing an aluminum frame, poly-carbonate panels, and automatic solar venting systems.
Cold frames are perfect for the backyard gardener desiring to stretch the harvest into the winter holidays. But they are versatile and also great for growing early spring crops, hardening off seedlings that were started indoors, or warming up cold spring soils before planting heat loving crops. During summer you can remove the top and use the cold frame to raise crops such as heat loving melons.
Other Season Extenders and Ideas for the Backyard Gardener
Niki also recommends mulch as a simple season extender that can be used to protect plants as the temperatures drop during Autumn. She covers plants such as root crops with a foot of loose mulch to protect them until later harvests. A row cover or old sheets can be placed over the mulch and anchored down for additional protection and to keep the mulch in place.
An Unheated Greenhouse is an option that adds the luxury of virtually unlimited growing space to work in and increases the production of your year-round garden. With a greenhouse there is no bending, cramped quarters, or fussing to pull back coverings to access your harvest. On the other hand there is more expense, effort, and maintenance involved with an unheated greenhouse and they may be better suited for market gardeners and farmers.
Niki provides additional information in her book; “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener” and delves deep into the cutural practices that she employs to combine hardy vegetable varieties with season extending devices in order to keep the vegetable garden green and productive no matter what the weather or seasons have to offer!
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