There are many clever ways to extend your gardening season. Below, I will explain the various techniques that can get you up to 6-8 extra weeks of garden productivity. These range from frugal to expensive ways to add more precious time to your garden season.
Clever Ways to Extend Your Gardening Season
Glorious and wonderful fall season is here! The summer heat is dwindling and, for many gardeners, there are sighs of relief that it’s now time to put the garden beds to rest. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the garden season to be done. Harvest Overwhelm is a real thing, and weeds and pests can wear down even the most obsessed of gardeners (even me).
However, if you’re not ready to lose your garden bounty yet, there are some really great ways to extend your gardening season.
Some garden extension ideas work for only small patches of crops; other ideas can work for huge gardens. Some ideas can be very creative and/or frugal; others might cost you some money. I’ve been experimenting with lots of different ways to extend my garden season, so stay tuned for future posts with more specific tutorials.
With all the different options for extending your garden season, here are some things to consider as you decide the best way to extend your specific unique garden:
- Types of vegetables: Certain vegetables do better with different types of garden extension options. For example, if you want your warm-weather-loving tomatoes to keep growing, a tall hoophouse might be possible, but it will only extend your tomato season by a few weeks. If you just want your tender-perennial rosemary plant to survive the winter, you might just need to use a simple cloche.
- Wind exposure: If you live somewhere with strong winds, a flimsy hoop house won’t work. Make sure you think about your wind strength when you decide on your garden extension technique.
- Garden layout: If you have a traditional flat garden layout, your soil will probably get cold sooner than gardeners with raised beds or other clever permaculture designs. Cold soil will stop your plants from growing, even if you use some type of garden extending device. You can keep your soil warmer for longer with dark garden fabric.
- Sunlight and weather: Sunlight is important for many of the garden extending techniques. The sun’s warmth helps keep the soil warm enough to continue growing your plants. If you live in a state with a lot of cloudy days in the winter, it might be more challenging for you to get things like cold frames to capture the sun’s warmth. Pay close attention to the amount of sun you get in your garden to figure out how to extend your growing season.
- Your specific microclimate: Your garden’s location will be important for the success of your garden extending techniques. For example, if your garden borders a forest, it might prevent winds and frosts but it might also prevent a lot of sunlight. If your garden stretches along the side of your house, depending on the direction, your house might cast winter shadows over your garden area.
General Tips: Keep these tips in mind as you think about which garden extension ideas you want to try in your garden. Pay attention to what plants or space you want to have an extended growing season and think about how you can emphasize or encourage the sunlight for that space, as well as how you can protect that area from freak early frosts or strong winds.
Options for Extending the Garden Season
Glass garden cloches were first invented in 1623 in Europe. The original cloche was a glass bell-shaped dome that could cover individual plants and provide a mini-greenhouse environment for that specific plant.
Cloches use the sunlight to warm the soil in the dome (which encourages your plant to keep producing) and they also protect the plant from frost. They are so good at capturing the sun’s warmth that they need to be well-ventilated. Otherwise, your plants can get too hot and they also don’t get the fresh air that they need.
Early cloche products did not have proper ventilation, but new garden cloche products usually have a vent on the top that can be opened to fix that problem.
You can also make your own cloches with recycled stuff from your house: milk jugs, large vinegar bottles, and other plastic bottles can be used for a frugal garden cloche option. Simply cut off the bottom of the container and place it over your plant. The top of the bottle can be unscrewed and taken off for a few hours each day for ventilation and to allow the hot air to escape.
Final Thoughts about Garden Cloches: Garden cloches are a great option for extending your gardening season for individual plants, like rosemary. However, if you want to keep a large garden bed of produce to continue growing, it would be very tiresome to put a cloche on each plant. They also wouldn’t work on tall plants like tomatoes.
2. Cold Frames
A cold frame is a bottomless rectangular box that you place on top of your plants to protect them from frost. The top is usually made of glass and you can often tilt the top glass cover in order to capture the sun’s warmth for your soil.
There are a few ways to use cold frames. You can place them right over the top of your plants inside your garden plot OR you can have a specific place on your land where you always keep cold frames throughout the cold months in order to grow food.
I knew someone in Wisconsin (I used to live there) who always had cold frames up against the southern side of her house (to use the winter sunlight). It was like having a bunch of cheap greenhouses and she had tons of fresh salad greens all winter long.
You can either purchase a cold frame OR you can make your own from repurposed materials around your home. You can make the sides out of wood, straw bales, cinder blocks, bricks or anything else you think might work. You can make the top out of old windows, plastic, fiberglass, or other random glass you might have around.
If you make your own, just make sure that they have proper ventilation. Either the top needs to come off completely, so you only close the cold frames at night and on cold days, or you need to be able to crack the top open slightly for a few hours each day. Also, if you make your own, if you can, make the top tilt so you can face them towards the south and capture the winter sun’s warmth better.
Final Thoughts about Cold Frames: Cold frames are a great way to extend your gardening season for smaller crops like lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, and other salad greens. This is not a good garden extension idea for a large garden plot. It’s nice that they are small so you can put them away during the summer. They are also great for the slow transition phase during the spring when you’re getting your seedlings ready to plant outside.
3. Low Tunnel Hoop Houses or Floating Row Covers
Low tunnel hoop houses or floating row covers are the perfect way to extend your gardening season if you have large traditional garden beds. These two options are pretty similar to each other, so I’m talking about them both together. Low tunnel hoop houses and floating row covers are low and narrow tunnels that are put over your garden row. They usually have some type of structure made of wire or tubes and then they are covered with some type of material.
These are low to the ground so that you aren’t wasting money and supplies on extra materials. It also makes it easier and quicker to sweep the material over your garden, which is perfect for when you are running out the door at sunset before a freak frost warning.
Since they are low to the ground, they are usually pretty sturdy and can handle stronger winds than other garden extension options as well as better handling for heavy snows.
My awesome cousins, owners of Growing Green Family Farm in Upstate South Carolina, graciously shared some pictures of their low tunnels and floating row covers for this section of my article. If you live in upstate South Carolina, check out their website for their CSA program and to learn more about their organic pesticide-free produce.
There are lots of options for low tunnel hoop houses and floating row covers that you can purchase either online or at a gardening store (this low tunnel looks like a great option or this floating row cover). You can also make your own. You can use materials such as fencing wire, chicken wire, pvc pipes, or other things around your home to make long and low frames. Then you can cover the frame with material such as plastic sheeting, specific greenhouse plastic, or other waterproof material you have on hand.
No matter if you purchase them or make them, you will need to do proper ventilation. Consider making sections in your long row covers so you can peel them back a few inches for ventilation. The ends should also be able to be easily opened during the day for some fresh air.
Final Thoughts about Low Tunnel Hoop Houses or Floating Row Covers: These are perfect garden extension options for large traditional gardens. They are a great option for protecting your plants from snows and frosts and warming up your soil. However, they can also be a bit tedious because you have to remove the oftentimes-very-long-covers in order to harvest your crops or if it’s a warm day. They are the perfect option for short crops, but will not work for taller plants.
4. Hoop Houses
Hoop houses are similar to low tunnels but they are taller. Hoop houses can come in many shapes and sizes, but in general, they are some sort of protection sheet that covers a form made of hoops.
They protect your plants from frost and capture the sun’s warmth in the soil and are one of the best options to extend your gardening season by about 6-8 weeks. Just like the other options, you will need to have proper ventilation, which can be done by opening the flaps on both ends of the hoop house.
They can be made with a large variety of materials. You can buy a hoop house setup or make your own. They are a great option for raised beds, but they can also work for small sections of large traditional garden plots. You can choose how tall to make the hoop houses, though if you’re using PVC pipe, it can only be as tall as the pipe length.
I made my hoop house with PVC pipe and plastic sheeting. My hoop house is a frame that fits on my raised beds and I cover the frame with plastic after I place it on the raised bed. I can easily move it off and on the raised beds and it is stored during the summer.
If you have wooden raised beds, you can screw conduit clamps into the raised beds, and then just put the PVC pipe in place over the bed when you need them. After that, just cover the PVC hoops with the plastic sheeting.
Final Thoughts on Hoop Houses: This is the perfect option for raised beds, but they are adaptable for almost any situation. They are easier to make than cold frames, since you just need PVC pipe and plastic sheeting. They might not be the best option for large traditional gardens, but they are still great for covering sections of your large gardens. You can make them tall enough to cover tomatoes and peppers if you want, too. However, they can be a bit flimsy and might not work best for places with strong winds and/or heavy snows.
Obviously, if you are able to afford one, a REAL greenhouse is a gardener’s dream come true. These are permanent structures that are on your land and are perfect for growing produce year round. I hope to make my own greenhouse someday from recycled old windows, but that’s a FAR off future goal.
For the rest of us, if you don’t have land for a permanent greenhouse or the time/money for one right now, you can always purchase (or make) mini greenhouses (also known as high tunnels). These are basically super-tall hoop houses that you can walk through.
The nice thing about mini greenhouses is that you can move them around your garden or property if you want and you can even take them down in the summer. The downside is that they are the most expensive option on this list of garden extension options. Here’s a highly rated high tunnel option to give you an idea of the price and size.
If you have the right supplies, you could possibly make your own high tunnel/mini-greenhouse. I personally think it’s more difficult because the frame would need to be made with a sturdy material in order to be that tall. But you might have a good selection of materials to choose from at your homestead to let you build your own mini-greenhouse. Let me know in the comments if you made your own (and how much it cost to make it).
Final Thoughts on Greenhouses: These are a great option if you have the funds and space for them. It would allow you to continue growing produce almost all year long. It’s a great idea for people with commercial farms or people who want to be as self-sufficient as possible.
Final Thoughts on How to Extend Your Gardening Season
I hope this article gave you a whole bunch of creative and clever ideas for how to extend your gardening season far into the fall and winter seasons. There are so many options, and it really depends on what you have on hand, what you are trying to keep growing, and your personal garden plans.
You might want to check out my other fall garden articles for more tips:
- Read more about How to Deal with Harvest Overwhelm
- Learn about How to Take Care of Your Fall Garden
- Check out my Fall Garden Planting Guide for vegetable ideas
- Read my tips on Planting Garlic (a fall growing vegetable)
If you’re tired and need a gardening break, that is totally okay! Simply read this article with a smile on your face, preferably while snuggled up next to a fireplace with some delicious cardamom spiced hot chocolate.
Happy fall season, everyone!
(Special thanks again to Growing Green Family Farm for sharing their photos with me! Check out their website to learn more about their organic and spray-free produce.)