Fall has taken a firm grip here in the Hudson Valley of NY as we glide into October. The temperatures have started to cool, the leaves are changing color, and I want to spend more time on the couch with a good garden book. I’m craving comforting soups instead of summer salads, find the cats gravitating towards my lap more often to share warmth, and I notice I must grab a jacket before heading out the door. There’s no denying that the seasons are transitioning, and the farm and I along with it. But did you ever wonder when you’re grabbing that jacket if perhaps some of your plants would also appreciate extra warmth this time of year? As the first frost looms, you can extend your growing season with a few simple tricks. Yes, it’s also sweater weather for your plants!
Does this mean I’m telling you to run out and put a cardigan on your favorite dahlia? Not quite. But if you are like me and aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to all your plants, there are ways to help you extend the growing season. Let’s dig in:
- Add Mulch: Adding a thick layer of organic mulch to your garden beds this time of year is beneficial for many reasons. Materials like straw or shredded leaves add insulation that traps heat and helps moderate soil temperature during the freeze-thaw cycle typical of this time of year. Mulch will also help protect the microorganisms in your soil and break down to improve your soil for spring planting.
- Use Row Cover: Like a sweater or blanket for your plants, a floating row cover can help extend the growing season by keeping plants frost free. When nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, putting a layer of row cover over your plants could make a significant difference. Row covers are typically made from spun polypropylene and offer protection from temperature extremes while allowing light and water to your plants. They come in different thicknesses, so look for one made specifically for frost protection. A layer of row cover can increase the temperature around your plants by up to ten degrees, which is significant when frost arrives. You can lay a row cover directly over your plants or drape it over hoops and secure it with rocks or landscape pins to keep it from blowing away. In a pinch, I have used old sheets and drop cloths in the past if I didn’t have enough row covers. However, these materials can be heavier, so they need support over your plants, or the weight may break stems.
- Use Cold Frames or Cloches: Another option is to use cold frames or cloches to protect plants from the cold. Cold frames are larger and less portable than cloches and are usually made of glass. However, they can be made from various materials, even bales of straw. Plants grown in cold frames are protected from wind and are insulated inside the frame. Gardeners may use cold frames to grow greens in the fall and early spring, and, incidentally, they can also use them to harden off seedlings before planting. Cloches are more portable and can be placed over individual plants. You can also use low tunnels for a similar effect. Be careful to vent these structures when temperatures fluctuate, or the plants may get too warm. In an emergency, I’ve even used upside down garbage cans and pots to protect plants from an unexpected overnight frost.
- Look for Microclimates: A microclimate is a growing climate that differs from the surrounding region. For example, a garden near a wall or in a spot away from the wind may have warmer soil temperatures than others. You might even have several microclimates in your yard. In my landscape, I notice a significant difference in temperature and climate in the gardens protected by a fence in our backyard than the ones with no protection. Plants in these backyard beds tend to be less affected by the first frosts. Take advantage of these microclimates by planting near walls that absorb and release heat or fences that protect from wind.
- Plant for the Cold: If you’d like to extend your growing season, plan on planting some cold-hardy varieties. For edibles, this could be varieties such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, greens, and carrots. Some of these varieties even become sweeter tasting after a frost. For ornamentals, consider chrysanthemums, asters, Japanese anemones, helenium, and solidago that can handle some chilly weather.
- Add a Greenhouse: If you have the space, a greenhouse can be beneficial for extending the season. They offer the same benefits as cloches and cold frames but on a much larger scale. Greenhouses work by trapping the sun’s heat during the day and keeping the temperature inside up to thirty degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
- Grow Indoors: If you live in a climate with harsh winters, the growing season will eventually come to a close. But that doesn’t mean that you have to stop growing! Instead, you may be able to overwinter some of your crops indoors. For example, lettuce and other greens can be grown indoors in the right conditions. And, before you know it, you’ll be taking care of seedlings as you start seeds and pre-sprout corms in preparation for spring.
So, as fall’s chill sets in and you grab that sweater, don’t forget about your plants. And with a few tricks and a little luck, you can extend your growing season and enjoy all the garden offers just a little bit longer. Happy fall gardening!