Stretching your growing season

Maybe it's the rebel in us all. Maybe it's natural restlessness. Maybe it's an urge to make maximum and efficient use of available time. But gardeners do like to try to push the envelope in order to grow more or better or different plants.

You can dig up many tricks and techniques along these lines, and you certainly may come up with a few of your own as your experience grows. The following sections describe some favorite rule-benders that you can try if appropriate to your garden, your needs, and your climate.

Building protection

If frost will damage a plant, perhaps you can still have it outdoors by shielding it somehow. This idea applies both to setting plants out a bit too early in the spring and leaving them in the garden a bit too late in the fall.

Use row covers, blankets, burlap, plastic sheeting, or extra mulch (compost, weed-free hay, or pine boughs). Water well; hydrated roots can withstand cold and drought better.

Bringing the plants inside

Potted plants, provided they're not too big or heavy, may be pretty easy to move indoors for a time. Most plants tend to grow less and be less productive or unproductive during the winter months, so you also want to reduce water and plant food. You may even cut the plants back and just keep the pots moist enough to keep the roots alive until spring returns.

Emergency protection: Keeping Jack Frost at bay

You may find you tried to stretch the growing season a little too far, or perhaps the weather experts missed the mark on the date of the final frost. A big chill is creeping up, and you've already used mulch and blankets as much as you can to keep the plants warm. What's a gardener to do? Try a little emergency frost protection.

Spray vulnerable plants with water to slow or prevent plant injury caused by chilling (as Florida orange growers know all too well when a rare frost threatens). How does this work? Cold, dry air tends to draw the moisture out of leaves and from the ground; the spray of water raises the humidity levels, which in turn reduces moisture loss. Also, in order for water vapor to condense or for water to freeze, the water has to release heat, which in turn warms the plant. The plants need to be kept wet until the danger of freezing has passed; using a sprinkler system is the most practical way.

Prized plants or special herbs that you want to save can also come inside when you dig them up out of the garden and put them in a pot. Again, they may not grow full force, but you can try to keep them alive. They may experience cooler temperatures inside but not the hard frost that would damage or kill them outdoors. If you plan to enjoy these plants longer, give them a warm and sunny spot on a windowsill or insulated sunroom. Water and feed moderately, and keep an eye out for pests.

By the way, dried herbs, canned vegetables, carefully stored (and cured, where applicable) fruits and vegetables all keep the bounty and memory of the garden alive in the off-season. So do dried bouquets and potpourris.

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