With continuing threats of rising food prices and additional future shortages, growing food for your family has never been more critical. Starting a garden for the first time has its challenges and learning curves, but one of the most important skills to learn is how to extend your vegetable growing season, especially if you live in a cooler climate.
If you live in an area with distinct seasons, there are natural limitations to when you can grow vegetables outdoors. In the spring, you have to wait until the threat of frost has passed and soil temperatures reach acceptable levels. Then, before you know it, shorter days and cooler temperatures will return to signal the end of your outdoor growing season.
Of course, it’s difficult to fight the weather, especially if you hope to win. However, if you learn to work within the natural boundaries nature sets, you will find successful ways to extend your vegetable growing season.
Here Are Three Easy Ways To Extend Your Vegetable Growing Season
While you can’t prevent late spring frosts or early blasts of winter, you can mitigate much of the damage caused by these natural events. You simply have to be prepared to provide adequate protection for your tender plants when the need arises.
Adding a heavy layer of mulch over your soil around your sprouting plants is the easiest way to protect your plants. Mulching around your plants provides a layer of insulation for the soil when temperatures dip too low or increase too much, helping to extend your vegetable growing season. It will also help hold in moisture as temperatures rise, so you won’t have to water as much.
Many types of mulch are available, including shredded leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, straw, and compost. Check to ensure it is free of chemical pesticides and herbicides, whatever type of mulch you choose for your food-growing area. For example, if you use a lawn service to keep your lawn green and free of weeds, you wouldn’t want to use your lawn clippings on your vegetable garden.
2. Install Cold Frames
Cold frames are another great way to extend your vegetable-growing season. A cold frame is simply a four-sided structure with a glass or plastic lid on top. They are used as mini-greenhouses to trap heat from the sun to keep plants warm when temperatures drop.
Cold frames are relatively easy to build. Start by creating a rectangular or square structure out of wood and securing an old glass window or door on top with hinges on one side. If you don’t want to use glass, you can attach a clear plastic tarp instead. This will keep the lid from blowing off in the wind and make it easy to open and shut as you add and remove plants. Potted plants and seedlings can then be placed inside to harden them off or help them survive unexpected dips in temperature.
You can create a makeshift cold frame with several bales of straw and an old glass window or door panel in a pinch. Arrange the bales in a rectangle while leaving the interior empty to house your plants. Top with a window or glass-paneled door and securely weigh it down on both ends, so it doesn’t fly off in high winds. Word of warning: do not use the straw option near a structure, like your house, because it will invite mice.
If neither of these options appeals to you, you can always buy a ready-made version at your local garden center, online, or from a local handyman. You’ll pay more for pre-built cold frames but won’t have to go through the hassle of finding materials or investing the time to build them yourself.
3. Install a Greenhouse
For many gardeners, a greenhouse is the ultimate gardening dream. How great would it be to have a permanent year-round space to nurture and grow your favorite plants? As an added bonus, a well-designed greenhouse can serve as a beautiful focal point for your property, as well.
Greenhouses come in all different shapes and sizes. You can build them with recycled windows, ornate metal or wood frames with windows, or even hoops with plastic tarps. If you’re in a cold-weather area and installing a permanent greenhouse, consider digging down under the greenhouse to be able to plant your veggies below the frost line. Planting your vegetables below the frost line will enable you to grow a food-producing garden throughout the year.
Unfortunately, hiring a contractor or purchasing a high-end kit to build a permanent greenhouse can get pretty expensive. Plus, you may need to pay to heat the structure part of the year in colder climates.
If you rent or have limited outdoor space, a permanent greenhouse may not be a viable option.
Less expensive portable greenhouse ideas
However, you can still enjoy many of the benefits a greenhouse offers without the high price tag or long-term commitment. There are several very affordable and portable mini-greenhouses available that are lightweight and have a small footprint. These options take advantage of vertical space by providing four or five substantial shelves to house your plants.
When we spent a year living full time in an RV, mostly at campgrounds, my family grew a few veggies in containers using a portable greenhouse. They’re very practical, helpful with space-saving, and work great for helping extend your growing season.
4. Indoor Gardening
There are a variety of vegetables you can grow inside, especially with sprouting seeds. If you have the space, set up a table near a window that receives direct sunlight to hold a tray of seeds that you can sprout before the last frost in the spring or when it’s still hot outside, and you’re preparing for a winter garden.
The most significant benefit of using containers to grow your plants is that containers are easy to bring indoors when it’s cold outside. Grow lights make container gardening even easier and more efficient. You use less water with container gardening than you do outside in the ground. Pest control is also much easier, as is weeding.
Indoor gardening can look a few different ways. You can use containers to hold your plants in your home or an enclosed porch. Containers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, materials, and designs, allowing your vegetable garden to serve as a beautiful focal point and provide your family with food.
Using multi-plant container garden systems helps save space, and many have places to attach grow lights.
5. Multi-Plant Container Gardens
There are several ways to use one large pot to grow 50+ plants!
Hydroponic systems require slightly more maintenance with watering and adding in plant food periodically but don’t attract bugs as much as potted plants do.
Small aquaponic systems integrate plants and fish, providing a symbiotic relationship that provides your vegetable plants with nutrients while simultaneously filtering the water for the fish.
Aeroponic systems are also gaining popularity for indoor gardening because they don’t use very much water, don’t use soil, and take up less space.
6. Raised Garden Beds
Raised garden beds help to trap heat, allowing the plants to live longer, especially if you add a cover for nighttime.
When you build up the soil so that your growing beds are 4 inches above the ground, you improve water drainage and allow extra room for roots to spread. You extend your vegetable growing season with better drainage benefits because they dry out and warm up faster in spring than traditional ground-level garden beds do, allowing you to plant sooner.
7. Plant Different Varieties
Look for different varieties of the veggies you want to grow. Different types yield at different rates or produce at other times of the year.
As you read descriptions of veggies you want to plant, look for varieties that are labeled “early” or “extra cold-hardy.” Cold-tolerant varieties of summer crops, including tomatoes and broccoli, can be planted earlier in spring than other varieties or later in late summer for a fall harvest.
8. Space Out the Dates You Plant Your Veggie Seeds
Space out planting seeds to a week’s difference to have veggies ready for harvesting. This is especially beneficial for lettuce and cabbage that doesn’t last long after harvesting to help you alternate which plants you harvest.
9. Install a Trellis
Using a trellis helps reduce the amount of space your garden needs, makes removing weeds a lot faster and easier, and makes adding mulch or compost a lot easier.
When set up correctly, a trellis will also provide your garden with more shade, allowing you to create a cooler space to start planting winter crops earlier in the season. With the shade also comes additional water retention, which is especially helpful with growing more plants during dryer seasons.
Setting up a trellis can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to look; just make sure it’s structurally sound to support the plants you want to grow. Your trellis may piggyback off a pre-existing fence, look like a tunnel or teepee, lean backward to offer a shady patch of yard, or be its own straight, standing structure. Use your imagination, and don’t feel shy to give it multiple tasks.
Keep in mind the location where you place your garden trellis. Insects, including termites, will quickly move into your home from the trellis if placed too close to your home. Climbing plants may attach to your home or eventually gutters, potentially destroying your siding. You’ll also want to choose a location with the appropriate amount of direct sunlight, depending on the type of plants you’ll be growing.
Some vegetables you can successfully grow on a trellis are peas, vining types of cucumber, grapes, climbing bean varieties, indeterminate tomato varieties, melons, winter squash, and zucchini. If large melons or squash grow too heavy and start pulling on the vine, better support them with slings made from stretchy material, such as worn-out nylon stockings, to attach to the trellis.
When you’re ready, plant your seedlings at the base of your new trellis. As they grow, weave the vines through the trellis to keep them supported vertically. Adjust as you need to provide the plants with enough airflow and growing space, keeping in mind whether you’ll add plants behind the trellis, ensuring there is enough shade.
10. Companion Planting
Companion planting isn’t often thought of when considering ideas to extend the growing season and maximize harvests, but it has many benefits worth considering.
- Save space by planting a vining plant next to a non-vining plant, using space that would otherwise be left unused.
- Reduces weeds by offering less space when you plant faster-growing plants with slower-growing plants
- Fends off certain destructive bugs
- Reduces disease and malnutrition
- Attracts more pollinators
- In some cases, may negate the need for a trellis (for example, planting a vining bean with corn)
- Increasing plant production (for example, plant asparagus and parsley near tomatoes to yield better harvests)
11. Crop Rotation
As your garden season comes to an end, plant something different in its place to help return nutrients to the soil. You shouldn’t grow the same type of plant in the same place more than twice before rotating, or you run the risk of depleting nutrients that plant variety needs.
These methods can extend your vegetable growing season with a bit of planning. Once you get started, you may be surprised by how much your gardening productivity becomes! Then, you’ll want to move forward in exploring all the different ways to preserve your harvest, like canning or freeze-drying, to fill your pantry and feed your family, even during the winter months.