Extend the Growing Season
Winter gardening. Extending the growing season into the fall and winter here in zone five without using artificial heat can be a challenge. But I’m always looking for new ways to both grow more food in the fall and winter. And to make it easier. For example building this hoop house last fall made a big difference. It expanded our growing space a bit and it allows us to get in from the cold and harvest crops in relative comfort in midwinter. And this year outside the hoop house I’m making changes to our cold frames and low tunnels to make fall and winter gardening both easier and more bountiful. Let’s start by looking at a couple of changes I made here in the hoop house.
I modified our old cold frames so that they stand upright and can accommodate taller plants like tree collards and perpetual spinach. The changes also make it easier to vent the cold frames and to harvest from them. The cold frames sit on top of the raised bed with a glass top slanting up toward the Sun. though There are two lids there’s no panel dividing the interior. The cold frames can be vented by propping the windows open and by opening the panels on top. We can harvest some of the taller plants like tree collars through the top.
Most crops are harvested by tilting the glass forward or by removing the glass. Because I created this new design from our old cold frames we were able to use only repurposed materials. Except for the new back panel.
I changed how we secure our low tunnel hoops to the top of the raised bed to make it easier to open and close the low towels and to provide a more airtight seal between the plastic and the top of the raised bed hoop pipes used to fit into wood blocks like this that were fastened to the top of the raised bed. Unfortunately the blocks got in the way. It made it more difficult to create an airtight seal between the greenhouse plastic and the raised bed. The new design secures the pipes to the raised bed using PVC end caps.
I simply drilled holes in the end caps fastened them to the top of the bed with screws. Then inserted the hoops. Now I have an unobstructed surface to secure the plastic to. Since I’ll only be opening the low tunnels from the inside of the hoop house I’ll secure the plastic on the outside. By pinching it under one by two furring strips on the inside where I’ll be opening the low tunnel. I use rebar to weigh down the plastic and create a relatively airtight seal.
Tunnels and frames
Now let’s take a look at some of the changes we’re making outside of the hoop house to make fall. These are growing easier and more bountiful for many years. Before we even had our hoop house we grew cold hardy crops in the fall and winter under low tunnels and cold frames and sometimes cold frames. Inside of low tunnels the extra protection allowed us to grow many of these crops well into the winter. Also some all the way through the winter. But as you can imagine when it’s cold outside and there’s a lot of snow on the ground it’s a bit of a hassle to have to unclip and remove the cover from a low tunnel and then open up a cold frame to access crops.
To make it easier to grow cold hardy crops under two layers of protection in winter I’m experimenting with a simple hinged low tunnel design on a couple of our raised beds. The design includes both inner and outer hoops. These will both be covered with six millimeter greenhouse plastic during the winter and two harvests. I’ll just lift the top and pick my favorite cold hardy crops. The inner and outer hoops are attached to a wooden frame that sits on top of a raised bed. They’re attached using the same approach I showed earlier with PVC end caps. The frame is hinged on one side to allow the top to be raised for easy access to crops. Just before the temperatures start dipping below freezing.
I’ll cover the inner layer with six millimeter greenhouse plastic and then probably in December when temperatures are regularly below freezing I’ll cover the outer layer as well. The plastic will stay in place until late winter when I remove the outer layer. Then sometime in this spring I’ll remove the inner layer. I’ll occasionally have to vent the low tunnels by propping them open. But by waiting until it’s quite cold before covering both sets of hoops I shouldn’t have to vent often. Obviously venting increases the risk of damage from high winds.
So that’s the basic design so far. I plan on releasing a complete how-to video on fall and winter gardening when the project is complete. That video will show the construction in detail as well as address issues like venting and dealing with the wind.
Expanding growing space
Now let’s look at how we’re expanding our growing space this winter. This compost bin is in one of the sunniest spots on our garden this time of year. So I thought it made sense to use the space to also grow food. To make this possible I built this small raised bed and cold frame out of repurposed wood screws and an old storm window. The raised bed sits on top of several layers of cardboard and is lined with cardboard to keep the soil in place. Roofing nails keep the cover from sliding off and bent the cold frame on warm sunny days by propping the cover open. Inside we’re growng lettuce spinach claytonia and parsley.
I’ll cover the compost bin and raise bed with a low tunnel in December. We should provide enough protection for the spinach and possibly the lettuce to survive through the winter. Next for the first time ever we’ll soon expand our fallen winter garden into the front yard where we’ll plant kale in firings under protection.
As you can see the eggplants and peppers in the fire rings are just about done for the year. We’ll harvest the last of them soon and plant the kale in their place when temperatures start dipping below freezing. We’ll cover the cowl with a cold frame to keep it going through the winter. Finally the last thing I’m thinking about doing will allow us to grow more food in this area where we just cut back our sunchoke flowers. We don’t harvest all of our sunchokes after cutting back the flowers. Instead in the past we covered the bed with storm windows to keep the soil from freezing. Then harvested the sunchokes as needed through the fall and winter.
But given the limited amount of sunny growing space in winter it sure would be great if we could continue to store the sunchokes here but also grow a new crop at the same time. So what I’m thinking about doing is building two small closed bottom raised beds. Then cold frames that will sit on top of this raised bed and I’ll plant kale on them. This will allow us to store our sunchokes all winter long in the soil on the bottom bed. While growing kale on top. The beds on top will be light enough that I can remove them to harvest the sunchokes underneath.
I hope this video gave you some ideas on how you can grow more food in the fall and winter where you live. Also how you can make it a little bit easier to give you a better idea of exactly what we’re growing in our fall and winter garden here in zone 5. I’ll share pictures along with the names of some of the crops we are growing this year.
Please click here for tunnels and cloches for winter gardening on Amazon.com