Each fall, as the garden season winds down, I am happy to put away my trowel and call it a year. But come spring, I am always champing at the bit to get something growing and to harvest my own fresh produce.
Although our climate is not conducive to four-season growing, there are some simple solutions to enable food production through mid-November in the fall and as early as mid-March in the spring. Or, as Snug Haven Farm in Belleville has proven, you can grow spinach all winter long (www.snughavenfarm.com/farm-history).
Greenhouses: We have a free-standing greenhouse that has served us well over the past 20 years. Consisting of only a plastic shell, the nighttime temperature inside is the same as that outside and it has not proven to be all that great for winter growing. In larger greenhouses or ones attached to a building that serves as a heat sink, or perhaps a greenhouse with a double layer of plastic with an air cushion between the layers, that temperature can be boosted enough for wintertime growing. In his excellent and instructive guide, Eliot Coleman talks about growing year-round in “Four Season Harvest.” It is definitely doable in our climate.
Cold frames: Greenhouses can be larger and pricier than we might want. Cold frames offer a more adaptable and inexpensive way to get an early start on the season. A cold frame is essentially a little mini-greenhouse. Just as a car’s interior will get warm in the winter sunshine, a cold frame will capture those early spring sun rays and provide a perfect environment for starting seedlings or growing some cool-hardy vegetables.
A cold frame can be an elaborate structure or as simple as a ring of hay bales topped with a sheet of plastic or old storm windows. This site (www.epicgardening.com/cold-frame-plans) offers 26 free plans for making your own cold frame.
The downside to using cold frames is that they need some sort of ventilation. During cool but sunny days, the interior temperature of a closed cold frame can get too hot for good plant health. If someone is not available to open the frame during the day, you can purchase an inexpensive thermostatically controlled lifter device to open the frame for you automatically.
Hoop frames: There are many designs online for building your own hoop frame. The structures vary in size from tiny ones to full greenhouse-sized units. This site offers an illustration of the construction of a small and simple hoop which could easily be your introduction to the craft: www.fix.com/blog/extend-your-gardening-season. Do a computer search for “how to build a hoop cold frame” and you will get oodles of hits.
Although many hoops are built of PVC, you can also use sturdy fencing material. Your goal is to provide a structure that helps block the wind and provides a slight increase in overall temperature.
The covering is essential. Plastic is often used but it must be ventilated on sunny days and closed up at night. I am enamored with Agribon, a spun polyester fabric that allows light, air and rain to get to your plants but also provides shelter from excess wind and insects while boosting the temperature a few degrees. In the spring, I can set out cool-season crops of broccoli, cauliflower, etc. extra early. They thrive and are also protected from insects. Later in the season, a hoop frame offers a warmer and protected environment for pepper plants. In the fall, adding extra layers for winter enables me to overwinter spinach for spring eating. The photo was taken on March 22 of this year — all ready for harvest!
Beverly Carney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.