Succession Planting Part III: Take Cover
When your growing season is short like ours is, naturally you want it to be longer. And the only way to add growing days to a short growing season is to create a microclimate that will be warmer (air and soil temperatures) than your naturally-occurring environment.
Before we moved to Minnesota, we lived in zone 8a (western Oregon). Gardening year-round is possible temperature-wise, but you become constrained by super saturated soils making it difficult to plant, and for said plants to grow in anaerobic soils -- not to mention the low light from all the heavy cloud banks. We didn’t know anyone who gardened year-round there, though I am sure with raised beds it is totally feasible. And, even though it was warmer in the winter, it was actually cooler in the summer than it is here in Minnesota. Crazy, right? A climate that on paper is warmer and greener in winter can't grow peppers well, while a climate that is frosty white in winter grows some respectable bell pepper crops.
So don't let your zone totally define - or limit - what you can grow. We built a super simple hot house in Oregon with alder saplings, a stapler, and some poly. It was downright adorable, but I don't remember if we successfully harvested watermelons. I now understand that the watermelons weren't really the point; it was the exploratory experience that propelled our nascent passion for gardening, and broadened our mindset to the creativity gardening invited into our lives.
I'm here to tell you a little secret: there is no rulebook with gardening. You write the rules. It's your garden. So go ahead and do crazy things, and share and encourage your passion with other budding gardeners. Here are some of the ways we extend our growing season.
Three Season Harvests
First and foremost, reframe your concept of a garden from a singular season's endeavor into a spring, summer, and fall adventure. We garden our land for each of the three distinct seasons where gardening is feasible here. Within each season there is a time and place for specific veggies you sow, ones you reap, and equal time for reflection and planning. We continually research and try new veggies as often as possible. Our limitations are definitely felt most notably with hot season crops as our summer heat doesn't persist as long as it does a zone or two south of here.
Personally, I find more energy at the beginning of the growing season, so our Spring garden tends to be overthought, over-planned, and on most years a successful cornucopia of a long winter's sweat. My summer garden maintains that exuberance but it is fall where there remains ample room to improve. Fall is a fabulous time to grow food for so many of you, though for us it’s more of a harvest season than a growing season, as temperatures by October are too cold for plants to grow. It’s those light fall frosts that sweeten your roots and transform your carrots and brussels sprouts into the best candy in the world. If you are reading this and live in a warmer climate, I'd encourage you most of all to get your late summer planting mindset geared up for an intense fall planting. You have so much to gain in fall, and the crops are so sweet and delicious as the days grow cooler.
Maximizing Your Growing Space
Space is hands down the limiting factor for almost all of us. When your early spring crops like radishes, peas, and lettuce are growing and almost ready to harvest, you likely have a plan for that space in late June/early July. I like to plant either our fall broccoli/cabbage, carrot succession, or my summer squash in those spaces. When your spring broccoli or cabbage finishes up in mid-July, that’s where you’ll plant your fall beets and carrots, or perhaps some fall peas - or if you have longer summers than we do maybe you could add another round of string beans there.
Think of your space as the patchwork it is: a dynamic, ever-changing landscape that can and should be intensively planted if you so desire. Don’t be afraid to rip out a zucchini plant that has overgrown, especially if you have other space open — a few weeks before you rip it out, sow a new succession in a different area of the garden, in another open space. With hot summer temps and warm soils, a tamer version will soon be fruiting, and will take up less space than your monstrosity that is now atop the compost heap.
And remember you don’t need space at the beginning of the growing season for everything you want to grow. I visualize this as a right-tailed bell curve - your demand for space peaks in midsummer, and slowly wanes as you approach September as things like corn, potatoes, onions, and beans have been harvested. And for us it’s a steep decline as soon as the first (often in early September) hard frost kills back those most tender veggies like the tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, squash, corn, and the like.
I recommend you envision how you can populate those spaces early with crops that will mature quickly, creating spaces that open up in early summer for a crop that will mature in September or later. Some great frost-hardy fall crops include carrots, kohlrabi, beets, rutabaga, spanish radish, and turnips.
Row cover or hoop houses are an essential part of our succession planting success. They afford us to grow (in spring) and harvest (late fall) during our shoulder seasons, those times of year where nothing is suppose to grow here. We have used them for about 10 years now, and our successes have included a ripe tomato on May 20, which is 2 months early by local standards - and perhaps even early for where you live. Without these hoops, we would not be harvesting radishes or pok choy for a Mother's Day dinner, nor would we be able to get our hands into the soil until the end of April at the earliest. Besides the practical advantages, it gives us hope and keeps us entertained while the lingering, inevitable April snowstorms maintain Winter’s grip on our heart's longing for Spring.
Last fall, I harvested a savoy cabbage on December 6 from inside a hoop house. It was not our largest, but the hoop transformed our garden bed into cold storage. I’d never harvested cabbage in December here before that moment, and I have to say, it deeply ignited my desire to expand this practice to its limits in the coming years. A greenhouse will one day be built on our homestead at which time we plant to pursue a Four Season Harvest approach, but in the meantime, we will continue to setup our mobile hoop houses. Here’s how we do it.
The most simple hoop house:
- For every 4’ of linear length, you need 1 10’ long 1” PVC pipe (hoop) cut to 9’ long so the 10’ painter’s tarp has overhang to weigh down and secure
- For a cedar or wooden raised bed, you will need 4 stainless 1” rigid 2-hole conduit straps for each PVC hoop
- For an in-ground bed, you will need 2 8” pieces of rebar as the foundation for each hoop
- 10’ x 25’ 5 mil painter’s poly (the thicker the poly the more frost protection you receive)
- 1 1/4” wide office binder clips
- Bricks or sandbags or material of choice to weigh down the sides (one per side of a 4’ section)
- If your hoop will be longer than 12’, add horizontal supports to the top of the hoop (we use 3/4” PVC for this, and reusable zip ties to fasten)
My seasoned and free advice is don’t make them too long. My recommendation is not longer than 20 feet in length. We made a 35 foot long hoop last year, and on a windy, spring day during a downpour, I had to run outside and tie it back down; it had become a kite and was about to blow away into my neighbor’s yard. It wasn’t easy to wrangle back down, and I don’t recommend you push it with this. Keep it small and manageable. That’s what we are now doing.
We have had both raised bed gardens and in-ground hand-dug raised beds. We currently have the latter, so we use the rebar method. Rebar is pretty easy, and we can pull it up and move it from bed to bed, reusing all the materials wherever we want or need a hoop. With our cedar raised beds in the city, we bought copper conduit straps, which bent and contorted themselves if we even just looked at them the wrong way. That’s why I recommend stainless straps as they are more durable. We used 2 straps - one at the top and one down lower on the outside of the bed - every 4 feet to secure the PVC tight to the bed. Many other avid gardeners do them on the inside. It’s a personal preference. But we hadn’t planned for hooping when we first built them so had to fasten them to the outside.
For the ends, we like to have the flexibility to remove them entirely in, say, late May when it’s warm but our tomatoes and peppers would appreciate the extra heat during the day. We have even grown watermelon inside an open-ended hoop all summer long. I am going to use this method for our peanuts this year for sure, as they are a highly questionable crop this far north unless our summer is super sultry. So, we cut them separately. It’s also convenient to be able to “burp” the hoops on a 50 degree sunny day, and, if you leave them closed up all day with a sunny spring day, it may actually get too hot for your plants to photosynthesize. So to be able to adjust the temperature with the most flexibility, cut your doors separate from your side walls. Attach them together with binder clips on each section.
Winter can be a great time for rest and renewal, so take this as an invitation to consider what could be. Take what resonates with you, and set a goal. Maybe brussels sprouts in January would be a fun goal for you, or radishes in late February. Perhaps your first ripe tomatoes and peppers could be picked by Memorial Day like we did one year. Set a goal -- a wild, unfounded, growing goal, a commitment to bend your preconceived growing limitations of your favorite food. Then fuel your desire to see how far you can take it by your craving to succeed.
No matter where you live in the lower 48, I'm here to tell you that harvesting food from May through Thanksgiving is not only a dream, but a reality well within your grasp. If we can do it in Minnesota where some years our soil is frozen for 5 months straight, you can do it where you reside. Trust me, you’ve got this.