Believe it or not, the days are getting longer and we can begin to plan for the next growing season.
With our northwest maritime climate, one of the tricks for increasing production in your food garden is by using techniques for “extending the season”. There are lots of these season extension practices that everyone knows about. Most typically, gardeners extend the season by starting some seedlings indoors or buying plant starts to set out when our soils have finally warmed. Many of our vegetable crop seeds need warm temperatures to germinate, but once they are sprouted, they can grow in cooler temperatures, as long as they get enough sunlight. For example, in June when our days are the longest, most gardens already have sizable tomato and pepper plants, even though the soil is finally just warm enough for those seeds to naturally germinate.
Many vegetable seeds do well and produce earlier harvests by being started indoors. Lettuces, Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, choy, kale, etc), squashes, beans, basil and many others will produce food for you more quickly if you start them indoors with extra light and heat. I do transplant onions, but I don’t recommend starting any of the other root crops (carrot, radish, beets, parsnips) this way because the plants don’t develop well. The squash, cucumbers, peas and beans need careful transplanting because they resent having their roots disturbed. I rarely transplant peas because they will germinate in cold soil, like we have in February and March.
Besides starting seeds under grow lights indoors, there are many other ways to extend your season and make your soils warmer so you can plant sooner. Many gardeners build cloches, hot houses, cold frames or even hoop houses. These are all terms for using glass or clear plastic to cover an area that you want warmer, protected from cold winds and insulated against our cold nights. When the sun shines, these structures get hot very quickly, so you need to provide for good air circulation too. I never tire of seeing all the creative designs gardeners have come up with to build these season extenders. Most use either recycled windows or plastic tubing with sheets of plastic stretched over them. Just be sure that your framing can stand up against the wind (which has been especially challenging this fall). Visit a community garden and check out all the ways these folks use season extenders.
A simple technique that will extend the season by a few weeks is using floating row cover (e.g. Remay). This spun polyester fabric will warm the soil by a few degrees and protects seeds just enough to improve germination. I think it keeps the seeds from drying out in the wind and also keeps birds from eating the seeds or seedlings. The fabric is light weight enough that you don’t have to stake it. As the plants grow, they lift it up. Also, the fabric doesn’t exclude the sunlight or water. The edges of the fabric have to be well anchored down (I use rocks, some use rebar or stakes) so it won’t blow away or let the insect pests in. I remove the row cover when the plants mature and the days are plenty warm. For some crops I leave the row cover on all the way till harvest, because it excludes dreaded pests, such as carrot rust fly, spinach leaf miner or cabbage butterflies. I order row cover by the yard from one of the gardening catalogues (e.g. Territorial or Johnny’s) and it is light enough that shipping is not expensive.
Despite the cold and darkness, take a walk through your garden and remove any weeds that are surviving. Often a winter garden stroll can birth delightful spring and summer plans.