As the weather gets colder, green thumbs may find themselves with limited options when it comes to continuing their hobby.
While it may be challenging to keep your plants alive past the traditional growing season, it’s not impossible, especially if you live in a more temperate climate.
How can you do it? Read on for some tips on how to keep gardening going even into the winter months
Start Before the First Frost
You’ll generally want to get seeds planted well before the first hard frost, while the ground is still warm, but that depends on where you live. Check out this handy zone map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to figure out whether cold-weather crops will thrive in your area.
If you live in a higher-numbered zone, you’ll likely be able to get away with planting fall crops later in the season. If you’re in a lower-numbered zone, you’ll want to get those seeds in the ground weeks or even months before the first frost to give them the best chance of survival.
Some seeds need to be started indoors. Be sure to read the instructions on your seed packet to learn how and when to plant them.
Pick the Right Plants
There are certain plants that just aren’t going to last in the cold, no matter how hard you try. If you want to keep gardening, you’ll want to focus on hardier crops. Fortunately, there are plenty of delicious veggies that are up to the task. In fact, these plants will taste better when grown in a cold climate.
Summer Rayne Oakes, founder of Homestead Brooklyn and the YouTube channel “Plant One On Me,” said that it’s possible to keep veggies going into winter, usually by housing plants in a transparent enclosure like a cold frame.
“You can grow some cold-hardy plants like kale and spinach, for instance – and prolong the growth through November and even further into the winter months (like up until March!),” Oakes said.
Broccoli and peas need to be grown in a cooler climate. Plants such as parsnips, according to Oakes, actually need a few frosts to develop their sweet flavors.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the (ice)box. While growing veggies is a great way to keep your freezer stocked with fresh produce through the winter, planting some non-edibles is a great way to keep up with your gardening hobby when it starts to get chilly.
“Though it’s already starting to get a chill in the air in the autumn, it’s a really good time to plant certain plants, like trees, shrubs and native flowers, for instance,” Oakes said.
The fall is a good time to plant trees and shrubs in the Northeast, where Oakes resides, because it’s too cold for insects, so you don’t have to worry about infestations ruining your foliage, she said
Cover Your Crops
If you only have a few plants that you want to protect from the cold, consider using a garden cloche. Traditionally, cloches are bell-shaped covers that are placed on top of a plant to keep it warm and safe from the wind (picture the glass display used to protect the magical rose in “Beauty and the Beast”).
There are a variety of cloches you can use to cover your plants, including makeshift ones. A big plastic bottle or milk jug with the bottom cut off will work well. Drive the bottle or jug into the ground around the plant, and leave the cap on. If the weather warms up during the day, remove the cap for venting and replace it in the evening.
If you don’t have any recyclables lying around, you can buy glass or plastic cloches online or in garden supply stores. You can also buy pop-up greenhouses, which are basically mini tents made of plastic, or water-filled cloches that use sun-heated water to insulate your plants and keep them toasty.
If you need to cover a larger area, you can also construct another type of cover called a hoop house with a few easy-to-find materials. Place wire or PVC in arches over your garden rows. Cover with a plastic sheet and secure. You can make it as big or as small as you need (shorter ones are called low tunnels).
If it’s particularly cold, and you need to bring additional heat into your covers, run an outdoor extension cord to your gardening area and lay some strings of incandescent outdoor Christmas lights by your plants. Believe it or not, these festive little lights will generate just enough heat to give your plants a fighting chance
You can also cover your plants directly using blankets. Blankets can provide enough insulation to reduce cold damage even when temperatures drop below freezing.
Plastic can also be used but will generally need to be held up on stakes so it doesn’t directly touch the plant, otherwise your plant can suffer freeze damage. The downside to fabric covers is that they are heavier, and if it rains, they may become so heavy they damage your plants.
You can buy fabric garden covers like a frost blanket online or in garden supply stores. Alternatively, you can repurpose old blankets to cover your crops in the cold. For extra insulation, throw a plastic sheet on top of the blanket. Use weighted objects, such as stones, to seal your covers to the ground, so no air can get in.
If you use a blanket, make sure to take it off during the day so your plant can get some sunlight
Construct Your Own Cold Frame
A cold frame is an enclosure built into the ground that is designed to protect your plants during the colder months. A transparent roof, sometimes made from repurposed materials such as old windows or shower doors, lets in sunlight and traps heat, creating a habitable environment for your plants when it gets cold.
You can construct your cold frame out of almost anything, even straw bales. Simply build or arrange your walls in a rectangle around the area you want protected and set the roof on top. If you can, build the north-facing wall of the frame taller, so that the roof slopes toward the south.
As a general rule, the thicker and sturdier the materials you use, the better off your plants will be.
A good cold frame can keep some of your crops going through the winter, depending on where you live
The best and most reliable way to extend your growing season is with a greenhouse. A greenhouse will protect your plants from any sudden changes in weather while providing them with a stable environment to continue to grow in when the temperature starts to drop.
While this can be an expensive addition to your gardening space, with high end, professionally installed ones costing upwards of $25,000, there are greenhouses that fit nearly every budget. Low-end ones can be installed for around $5,000, and if you only need something simple, you can buy greenhouse kits that you assemble yourself for less than $1,000.
Novice gardeners might find even a couple hundred bucks too much to spend for a cold-weather garden, but if you’re a serious hobbyist or a semi-professional, it’s worth considering, as these structures are a game-changer when it comes to gardening in cold weather.
If you decide to have one installed, make sure it’s in a spot that gets a lot of sun.
Know When to Head Inside
Those who live in warmer climates might be able to significantly extend their growing season using these methods. However, if you live somewhere that frequently has falls and winters with a lot of snow and subzero temps, be realistic about how long your harvest can last.
Even if the weather outside is frightful, you can still satisfy your green thumb with an indoor garden.
Whether you decorate your windowsills with them or have your own designated garden space with grow lights, there are many delicious veggies and herbs that grow well indoors.
“Grow lights – particularly LED ones, which have a range of more amenable lighting options – have made it possible to grow everything from microgreens to full salad greens and herbs,” Oakes said. “I have six grow lights myself so I can continue growing plants indoors no matter what season.”
What are your cold-weather gardening plans? Tell us in the comments!
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