It is a beautiful fall morning, the air is crisp, the sky is filled with flocks of geese migrating south, and the ground is covered with a soft blanket of dew.
“Or wait, is that dew,” you think to yourself, “or is it … is it frost?!”
You jump out of bed, throw on your clothes, and race out of the house into your garden, hoping to save at least one or two precious tomatoes. But alas, it’s too late. As you stare out along rows of slumped, frostbitten plants, you realize another garden season has come to an end.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It did to me. Year after year, I thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be great if I could keep my garden going just a little bit longer?” Eventually, I learned that I could. And the best part is, it didn’t cost me a fortune, and I was able to make it happen in a jiffy.
Here are a couple of homemade creations that can help you extend the season simply and quickly.
Some folks call these “cloches,’ “tunnel cloches,” “floating cloches” or “floating row covers,” but I like to call them mini-greenhouses, because it conveys the idea, right away, of what you’re putting together, and for what purpose.
Much like the protective rain covers described a few months ago, these greenhouses can be built with three easy materials: rebar, PVC pipes and plastic. All of which can be bought new for relatively cheap, or found through great places like Freecycle, Craigslist or your local junkyard. If the thought of buying these materials sounds daunting, here a couple of other options. Instead of rebar use wooden stakes. Instead of plastic use old bedsheets. Plastic will work best for a hard frost but sheets will let in both moisture and cool air. You can even use hula hoops cut in half, in place of PVC pipe.
Once you’ve gathered your materials, place your stakes in the ground around the rows or beds you’d like to protect, bend the tubing over the bed to create the frame, and cover the frame with your material of choice. You will need to size the pipes and cover material to your area and secure it to the frame. Make sure it reaches all the way to the ground to keep the cold night air out. Once done, this little greenhouse can be moved from one end of the garden to the other, as needed. If using plastic, make sure to secure it in a way that allows you to lift it up a little bit on hot days to ventilate your plants. Remember, you’re aiming to create a warm cozy greenhouse, not a sauna! These mini-greenhouses can also be used to give you a jumpstart on the season in spring.
For those who are looking to build something more permanent to extend the season, there is always the age-old cold frame. A cold frame is simply a shallow rectangular box with no bottom, and with a cover made of glass or plastic. The tops can be made from old windows, glass doors, or clear, durable plastic lids from tubs. The sides can be made from wood or straw bales. To make your cold frame extra cozy, use both, placing the bales around the wood for insulation.
Be sure to keep the following tips in mind when building a cold frame: 1) make sure the sides slope toward the south to capture the sun’s rays; 2) make sure your soil is full of organic matter to warm up the bed under the frame; and 3) think about painting the inside of the box a light color, to help diffuse the sunlight.
If you plan to make your cold frame a permanent structure, you will want to consider a more permanent foundation such as concrete, rot-resistant wood, or wood painted with a latex acrylic paint, to slow down rotting. This foundation should sit below the frost level, with your soil, organic matter and plants on top. Cold frames are more involved than the mini-greenhouses, but are a great long-term investment for extending your season.
Quick Easy Saviors
If you aren’t able to put together anything too fancy this fall, there are still a couple of simple things you can do. Throw a large clear plastic garbage bag over your tomatoes, using the tomato cages to help provide structure for the bag. Cut the bottoms out of clear plastic milk jugs, and place them over a few of your smaller, healthier plants. Create a temporary cold frame by stapling some clear plastic over the top of a cardboard box. Fold the top flaps in for added stability. Fold the bottom flaps out, and hold them in place with bricks or stones.
Even if you use all of these tips, don’t forget that the best way to extend your growing season from year to year is to grow strong and healthy plants through good soil and regular maintenance and care. The hardier your plants are, they better they can withstand the cold.
Until next time, keep growin’!
When will frost arrive? Check out our average frost dates.