If you’re one of those gardeners who can’t wait to get some early homegrown vegetables, there are a few inexpensive ways to extend your gardening season – at both ends!
One of the easiest ways is by using a “cold frame.” You can buy these, with a plastic cover, but that can be costly if you have to purchase both frame and cover. A cheaper method is to build your own from scrap lumber and an old window. A southern-facing frame in a sheltered spot is best. If you can sink the frame into the ground, the earth will help to provide insulation. Don’t make your frame too wide, as you want to be able to reach all parts of it easily.
The window can be raised during the day and lowered at night when the temperatures are cool. If you start really early, or continue really late, you may want extra insulation over top at night, such as a quilt, or burlap sacks of old leaves in the fall. On warm, sunny days don’t forget to raise the top, as the temperature may become quite hot. Then remember to lower it again early enough to conserve some of the heat overnight.
In spring, we found the cold frame useful for hardening off seedlings started inside, such as tomatoes or zucchini. We also used ours for early lettuce in May and again for late lettuce in the fall, which we planted about the beginning of August. (Late plantings may require some shading if the weather is hot and dry. Old bamboo window blinds are a possibility here, or you can buy shade netting.) For late lettuce, endive is a good fall variety because it can stand cold weather. We used ours into mid-November last year, even though there had been snow. (Another way to extend the season for salad ingredients is to remove plants that finish their season early, such as peas and radishes, and plant lettuce or spinach in their place.)
A couple of other things we do to have early vegetables involve a little more planning ahead. Perhaps you can start thinking now for next year. One of these is to scatter some lettuce seed in the late fall. We’ve tried this with mixed results, but still worth it even if only a few plants grow.
Another early vegetable to use in spring is onions – a nice addition to your salad in May. For years, we’ve had a clump of “winter onions” in a corner of the garden that self-reproduce and winter over. They reproduce with small bulbils at the top of a stem which fall off and take root. (You can plant these yourself in fall, or keep them over winter to plant in spring.) Apparently these onions are not that easy to locate, but if someone you know grows them, they will probably give you a few bulbils to start your own clump.
One way to lengthen the season for homegrown tomatoes is to grow the “long-keeper” kind. We haven’t grown them ourselves but were given some that lasted into January. They’re an orange variety and not as sweet as summer tomatoes, but they beat store-bought ones. We’ve also eaten fresh carrots in mid-winter by leaving a short row in the ground and covering the plants (with straw bales on each side, with leaves or straw over top, and hopefully a layer of snow).
There are other products you can purchase to lengthen the growing season, such as row greenhouses (like plastic tunnels) and hot caps for tomatoes. Although more expensive, these may require less work, so some gardeners prefer them.
Extending the gardening season in Manitoba does take a little effort, but that first taste in spring, or that salad in November, might make it worth your while. – Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba