If you want to extend your growing season, move south. A slightly easier alternative is to create a "southern" environment where you live. You can do this by extending your own spring and fall seasons by approximately two to four weeks.
I'll admit that doesn't sound like much, but let's consider these statistics: the average gardening season is about six months — the last half of April, all of May, June, July, August, and September, and the first half of October, which is twenty-six weeks. If you start two weeks earlier, say at the beginning of April, and finish two weeks later, at the end of October, those four weeks have increased your growing season by 15 percent. If this still doesn't sound like much, just picture your present salary being increased by 15 percent.
Now, if you could extend the growing season by four weeks at each end, that would be a 30 percent increase, which is something really worth considering. Unfortunately, that wouldn't automatically increase your cash sales by 30 percent, because the beginning and end of the growing season are not as productive as the middle. So we might realistically expect a 20 percent increase in sales from a 30 percent increase in season length, which is still a worthwhile goal.
Of course, in the more southern states, the growing season is much longer than twenty-six weeks, so the percentage advantage of extending the growing season is not as much. However, just the opposite is true the farther north you go. As the frost-free growing season becomes shorter, those extended two to four weeks at the beginning and end of the growing season could become extremely valuable.
Here's another point to consider: in later winter and early spring, you're just dying to get outdoors and get started. It's a very enjoyable and exciting time of the year for a gardener. And in the fall, the weather is so perfect that even though you're winding down from a hard summer of gardening, it's still a time to relax and enjoy the outdoors. If you capitalize on your own enthusiasm, you'll wind up increasing your productivity.
Both spring and fall weather can be quite erratic, however. So you need protection from the elements, which is fairly easy and inexpensive to provide, and a little ingenuity, which is free.
Let's consider each season. In the early spring, it's important to get that soil warmed up. It's been freezing all winter, so we have to protect the garden soil from chilly nights and sudden drops in temperature, while allowing the sunshine to come through. We also want to protect it from any chilly rains and late-season snows or frosts. All that's needed is a clear plastic cover stretched over our familiar wire frame (chapter three). The frames don't have to be very tall, because nothing is growing under them yet. Tilt the frames a little so the water will drain off outside your beds. Usually at this time of the year, we do not want to add any more water to the soil. We want it to start drying out as well as warming up. (If you have a compost pile, do the same thing: cover it with clear plastic and let it start warming up.) If you've laid down mulch or other covering to protect your soil through the winter, remove it before you put on the clear plastic.
If you didn't prepare any of your garden beds last fall, don't be afraid to do it in early spring, providing the soil is not too wet. The standard test for soil readiness is to squeeze a handful. If it drips, it's too wet; if it won't form a ball, it's too dry. But if it forms a ball in your fist and then breaks apart easily when you poke it, it's ready to be worked.
Now is the time to add lots of compost (remember to check your pH beforehand) and turn your soil. If you're planting seeds, make sure the surface soil is fairly fine and uniform. Rake it smooth and level, then cover it with your wire and plastic protection. If you expect heavy winds, tie the wire frames down so they won't blow away. The best idea is to nail or staple the wire to your wood frames, and attach the plastic to the wire either with clothespins or by stabbing the wire through the plastic before you attach the wire to the frames. The ideal structure is a slight arch. It leaves an air space between the soil and the plastic wire cover and will allow the heat to build up inside and be retained at night.
Once you see weeds growing, you know your soil is warming up fast. Reach in under the frames with an action hoe and cut off those weeds periodically so they don't take all the nutrients from your soil. There's no need to remove them after you cut them off. Just leave them on top of the beds to become part of your mulch.
When you start planting your seeds, you can continue to use these same structures. Lift up oneside of the wire and plant your seeds at their proper spacing. Sprinkle with a watering can, making sure to use sun-warmed water, and replace the cover. Now you have to be careful, because the sun gets extremely warm in spring, and heat can build up rapidly in an unvented structure. If the soil gets too warm, the seeds will cook and never germinate. A simple method of venting your covers is to cut slits in the plastic or fasten one end open with clothespins.
But as you vent your covers, the moisture could evaporate too quickly and your seedlings could dry out from the heat. One solution is to cover or replace the clear plastic with black plastic, whichever is easier. This will prevent the heat from building up. Contrary to popular belief, black plastic will not increase the temperature underneath as much as clear plastic will. Although many gardening experts recommend laying down black plastic "for heat-loving plants," the real reason for using black plastic is that weeds will not grow underneath it because of the lack of light. The sun's rays cannot penetrate black plastic. With clear plastic or glass, on the other hand, the rays strike the ground and reflect back, but not through the plastic or glass, causing the"greenhouse effect.'' So using black plastic to cover the frames will work effectively for newly planted seeds. If it's fairly tight, it will keep the moisture inside, preventing the top layer of soil from drying out.
But you must be extremely cautious; check your beds twice a day. As soon as the seedlings sprout, they must get sunlight or they will become leggy. One simple reminder is to plant a few of the same seeds three or four days before you plant the rest. When those sprout, you know you have to remove the top because the others will be sprouting in just a few days. Those seeds are sacrificed in order to save the rest of the crop from becoming too leggy to be productive.
A heating pad or a heating cable can be used to get an early start in the spring.
If you really want to start early, and I mean more than a month earlier, lay down heating cables or heating mats in your beds. Set them about four inches under the soil surface. Of course, you have to consider the cost of electricity versus theadvantages of getting off to an earlier start. And although this will enable the seeds to sprout much more quickly, after they come up you'll have to keep the area above them warm enough so that late winter cold spells don't do them in. A lot depends on how adventurous you are. You might want to try this as an experiment with a few crops to see how it works out the first year.
In all your activities, keep in mind that you're trying to warm things up early. Obviously, you won't use cold water or open your covers on cold, windy days. And you might even want to make some emergency covers for your frames out of old blankets which you can throw on in case of a cold snap at night. Most of these ideas are just common sense applied to a gardening situation. You want to increase the temperature a little earlier than nature planned.
In the fall, the situation is just the opposite. You're not concerned about below-ground temperatures because your soil is still very warm from thesummer and takes a long time to cool off. You want to control the above-ground or air temperature. Since the plants are quite large and you're trying to keep them growing, you have a large volume of air to control, which requires a higher structure or cover.
In the fall, harvest can be continued if crops are protected from those first killing frosts.
And since thesun can be extremely warm onfall days, you've got to provide venting to prevent temperature buildup, which will cook your plants or bring your harvest too quickly. Many of the cool weather vegetables such as the lettuce and cabbage family will bolt to seed if the temperature in their enclosures is too warm. Most of the cool weather vegetables are hardy, so unless you're protecting something like lettuce from an evening freeze, you might not want to put up a cover.
Here's a chart of those vegetables that can withstand some frost:
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