Garden Know-How: Extend Your Growing Season

Learning a few season extension techniques can help you start your garden up to six weeks earlier and enjoy fresh food sooner.

| February/March 2007


Plastic-covered tunnels make perfect mini-greenhouses for early spring planting.

Phtoto courtesy ROBIN WIMBISCUS

As late winter days lengthen, resourceful gardeners scurry to collect cloches, erect plastic-covered tunnels and put together a workable cold frame. Using season-stretching devices such as these can add four to six weeks to the front end of your growing season (and many of them will be handy again in the fall).

You can make an amazing array of season-stretching garden gear from found or recycled materials, and you won’t have to rely on electric grow lights to get delectable spring greens in time for Easter or have the first ripe tomatoes on your block. Creating season-extending equipment is fun because you’re working with free solar energy. The trick is to come up with simple structures that can withstand strong winds, shed rain and snow, and absorb and store solar warmth for the plants you’re protecting.

Physical shelter from blustery weather will help any plant, but cool-natured plants such as lettuce, spinach and cabbage-family crops don’t need as much heat as tender tomatoes or peppers — especially at night. Simple plastic cloches or plastic-covered cold frames raise nighttime temperatures 4 to 5 degrees, but you can double that number by throwing on an insulating blanket in the evening. Or triple the protection by adding black water bottles, which release stored daytime warmth after the sun goes down.

Try Creative Cloches

Low, transparent individual plant protectors, called cloches, are the season-stretchers of choice for plants spaced more than 8 inches apart, such as tomatoes and peppers. Most gardeners keep a stash of cloches made from translucent plastic milk jugs or clear plastic bottles. I pick up roomy plastic juice jugs with handles at my local recycling center.

Before cutting off the bottom of any jug, I make a vee-shaped slit in the top of the handle. Later, I can shove a long, slender stick through the slit and down into the soil to help hold the cloche steady in the wind.

Even when anchored by mulch, strong winds may blow away many cloches — except for heavy ones such as the Wall O’ Waters, which weigh about 25 pounds when filled. A circle of water-filled plastic drink bottles duct-taped together is heavy enough to stay put and hold down the edges of a sheet of plastic tucked around the cloche for extra frost protection. Countless other items make great emergency cloches for freaky cold spells, including plastic cake covers, upturned flowerpots, cardboard boxes, buckets, baskets, and old lampshades or light fixtures.

4/16/2015 11:37:32 AM

My husband and i are trying to figure out what to grow in our new greenhouse during the very hot august heat. I've heard okra loves the heat? We constructed a nice greenhouse from and we are just trying to plan out out summer season. My husband is leaving the research up to me, lol ! Anyway, I LOVE your magazine and site. Thank you! Theresa Filman

ronald ellis
11/8/2010 11:40:38 AM

Here in south-central Alabama we worry less about frost and more about insects, which because of the warm weather are with us most of the year. In the fall, cabbage worms and their mothers (yellow butterflies)are constantly on the move. So, my low greenhouse is covered with super lightweight row covers to prevent the butterfly from laying her eggs on my collards and cabbages. For decades now I've built my low greenhouses of half-inch, schedule 40 PVC pipe. I drive steel rebar in the ground to hold the pipe hoops in place. Once row cover fabric is on I use bungee cords to hold it down, and it works even when we have hurricane force winds. If anyone wants a step-by-step pictorial tutorial, go to my blog: Mother Earth News was a revolution when it was first launched, and continues to be such today. Thanks for all that you do.

l a graham
8/30/2010 2:06:01 PM

I had some old vinyl portable storage closets that I converted into mini-greenhouses. They were ideal because the "door" zips open from across the top and down, so I could unzip it a short ways and the heat would escape through the open part of the door. The top is black fabric, so in dry weather it absorbs the heat well; when wet weather is due, during cold weather I cover the top with weighed-down sheet plastic and in warm weather just leave the fabric uncovered and let the rainwater seep through to the plants. This is working for me much better than the mini-greenhouses that I bought at a clearance center; they had no vents and the plants were frying. I removed the covers from those frames, which included wire shelves, and set the framework and shelves inside the closets.

lillian maresch_1
1/20/2010 3:02:29 AM

Please forgive me if this message is a duplicate of one just logged in - don't know if the first one went through. I'm trying to locate Bob Kornegay in Rutherfordton, NC, where I'm told he is currently living and working. An artist friend of Bob's who thinks very highly of him strongly recommended that we contact Bob ASAP to help us set up thermal heating in the off the small grid home we are constructing in NC. However, we cannot find a phone # or any contact info for him. Thank you for any help you may be able to offer us in contacting Bob as soon as possible! All the best, Lillian 864-895-1857

lillian maresch_1
1/20/2010 2:58:29 AM

I am trying to get a contact phone # or email address for Bob Kronegay in Rutherfordton, NC. Might someone at Mother Earth News be able to help me with this? An artist friend of Bob's strongly recommended that we contact Bob ASAP to set up thermal heaters but we are unable to locate any contact info for Bob. Many thanks for any help you can offer us! Blessings and gratitude, Lillian

norma _2
1/16/2010 9:22:36 PM

Recycled styrofoam coolers or minnow buckets are wonderful protection from even the hardest freeze in early spring. We had a particularly bad hard freeze in late-April a couple of years ago (-2 degrees) and we covered all of our plants. The only ones that survived it were the ones we covered with old minnow buckets.

mother earth news fair


Feb. 17-18, 2018
Belton, Texas

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, hands-on workshops, and great food!