Extending the Fall Garden

As the weather begins to get colder, there are many ways in which one can protect the fall garden and extend the harvest into December and sometimes even January.

The floating row cover is usually my first line of defence against early and light frosts.  The row cover is an extrembely lightweight blanket made of spun polypropylene, a bit like a light fabric interfacing.  It comes in different widths and is placed directly over the garden.  It provides four degrees of frost protection while allowing the rain through and 80% of the sunlight.  In the spring it works to protect small seedlings  from frost and to speed growth.  In the fall it provides about 4 degrees of frost protection.  I buy my row cover from Stokes Seeds in St. Catherines, Ontario.  There are many different weights and widths available, their product is light enough that you do not need to raise it off the plants with hoops and comes in a 5′ width which works perfectly for my 4′ wide beds.

If you are using the row cover to protect low lying plants such as lettuce, you can probably anchor the cover with a few strategically placed rocks.  If you are covering larger plants such as tomatoes or peppers you pretty well have to drape it over the plants and hope that the night is not too windy.  Luckily frosty nights usually are relatively still.

Often there are light frosts in September and October.  A light frost means that the temperature goes slightly below zero, maybe 2 or 3 degrees.  Vegetables such as lettuce, salad greens, beets, carrots, cabbage, and kale will easily survive a light frost, without any protection.  It is the more tender vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and basil that need protection – often covering with the row cover can mean a month to 6 weeks longer of harvest. Once the nights get colder, below -4C, I find it is hard to protect these tender plants and I allow nature to take its course.

My next category of frost is the medium frost, this means that the night time temperature will drop to between -4C and -8C.  For these nights, I use the floating row cover to protect all of my salad vegetables, beets, swiss chard, cabbage, and kale.  Root crops such as carrots and parsnip will not be affected by this kind of frost, and in fact, their flavour sweetens considerably after several frosts.

As the weather gets colder, I try to save as much as I can in the garden by using a double layer of floating row cover.  Then I pull out some old sheets bought at second hand stores.  These are arranged as puffily as possible to trap air and insulate the plants.  It is important not to leave these covers on during the day as your vegetables will start to suffer.  Straw is another nice insulator and can be hilled around the base of kale plants to help them survive some very cold frost.  I also like to place a light layer of straw over spinach and swiss chard in the hopes that these plants will survive the winter and regrow in the spring.  Kale and Swiss chard are perhaps the two hardiest green vegetables in my garden, and I have often harvested them well into December and sometime again in January if there is a thaw.

note – I do not write about cold frames, which can be used to successfully protect lettuce, endive, beets, etc. into December, mainly because I have seen too many cold frames left out after the first snow and in the spring there is a mess of broken glass on the garden.  Also, if at all possible, do not leave the floating row cover out all winter – it usually disintegrates and is no longer usable.  Row cover that is stored inside can last 5 or 6 years.

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