Don’t Put the Garden to Bed Yet

woman holds freshly harvested carrots and onions

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There is so much work to do in the fall putting the garden to bed for the winter. It can be a rush to get everything done before the first frost hits. Fortunately, you don’t really have to. In many parts of the country, it’s possible to grow vegetables year-round, and even in the coldest regions, you can stretch your growing season with a few simple tricks.

Season extension is exactly what it sounds like — gardening techniques that allow you to extend the length of the growing season by reducing wind exposure and warming the soil. With a little planning and careful plant selection, succession planting, sheltering, and mulch can help you extend your harvest into winter and jump-start your growing season next spring.

Timing

If you are like most American gardeners, you planted your vegetable garden in the spring and have already harvested most of what you grew. Conventional wisdom says that fall is the time to clean up the garden before heading indoors for the winter. But planting doesn’t have to be a one-season activity. Through succession planting, you can extend the harvest for weeks or even months. Instead of planting your entire crop at once, plant smaller quantities a few weeks apart. The timing of each successive planting depends on how quickly each variety grows, counted backwards from your average first frost date.

hoop houses to protect growing vegetables from cold weather

Hoop structures like these help protect plants from high winds and cold temperatures. Image: Adobe Stock

Structures

The first frost does not have to mean the end of your gardening season, either. You don’t need a greenhouse to grow plants out of season. Homemade shelters like hoop houses, cold frames, and even floating row covers can protect plants from high winds and extreme temperatures, keeping them alive long after outside temperatures have dropped. Even a thick layer of organic mulch and some upcycled milk jug cloches can make a difference. Few plants will continue to grow at freezing temperatures, but you can protect plants from freezing until temperatures rise in early spring. In the meantime, your garden can serve as a refrigerator, storing your nearly mature vegetables for harvest throughout the winter.

Planning

Even if these techniques keep you hard at work outdoors well into the winter, cold weather is still the time for planning next year’s garden. Winter gardening takes even more planning and know-how than regular gardening. Read books about extending your growing season — Niki Jabbour’s Year-Round Vegetable Gardener is a classic for winter gardeners. Choose cold-resistant varieties when you shop the seed catalogs. And when you plan your planting rotations, remember that soil on south-facing slopes remains warm the longest. Whether you just want one more week of fresh tomatoes in the fall or you intend to trudge through January snow to pick fresh broccoli for dinner, using season extension techniques will help your garden grow more.

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Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.

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