As fall approaches, most gardeners begin thinking about what they can do to keep their vegetables from being frosted or frozen at the end of the growing season.
Extending the gardening season into fall can be a challenge. Even if you are working with cold- or cool-weather crops, the crops cannot survive hard freeze or frost for very long. Continue to use old sheets and blankets or sheets of plastic to protect plants, as you have in past seasons, but consider other season-extending opportunities, as well.
“If the idea is to have more vegetables to harvest, eat and share with others throughout the vegetable gardening season, then we can look at other options in the garden,” says Richard Hentschel, a horticulturist at the University of Illinois Extension.
He suggests finding microclimates in your farm garden or yard that will host crops later into the season. Every home has areas in the landscape where soils are warmer, such those that are southern- or western-facing. He says to consider planting one or two crops in those areas as mini-gardens. Try vegetables and herbs that have colorful foliage and can add to the visual interest of the landscape, as well as being something that’s grown to eat.
“A landscape bed may be just the right place for vine crops taking up so much space or some of the longer-season vegetables like chard, Indian corn or Brussels sprouts, or perennial crops like rhubarb with its large leaves, or asparagus with its fine, fernlike foliage,” he notes.
Gardeners can also benefit by considering other growing methods.
“Some vegetables can take up lots of space,” Hentschel says. “Gardeners could grow vine crops on a vertical trellis, leaving more ground space for successive plantings of snap beans, for example, allowing a longer harvest of beans. If a trellis is not in the picture, grow the space-saver varieties that do not use up your entire garden, leaving room for your other vegetables.”
When it comes time to harvest, one of the most important ways to extend the season is to remember to save only the best for long-term storage.
“Harvest and handle your vegetables with care, as every bruise lessens the time you are allowed to store that vegetable,” he says. “If storage is not an option, gardeners can always leave certain root crops right in the garden, mulched before the ground freezes, so you are able to go out and dig them up as you need them during the winter months.”
Finally, Henstschel reminds gardeners that even though it seems a long way off, spring will also offer more opportunities for extending the next gardening season.
“One way is to start earlier in the season … by planting those vegetables that really prefer to grow in cold or cool weather,” he says. “[For example,] there are approximately 160 to 200 frost-free days in Illinois, depending on what part of the state you live in. That allows you to extend your early-season harvest by planting those early crops like the leafy greens, onions, turnips, peas, cabbage, broccoli, potatoes and more.”