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Organic Season Extension in your Fall Garden

Your organic vegetable garden doesn't have to hibernate this winter. It can be alive and well if you choose to try some season extension methods.

Season extension is a general term that encompasses any practice which allows you to produce quality vegetables outside of the season that Mother Nature grants you. This isn't to say that season extension doesn't work in harmony with nature: it can and it does.

Many season extension methods that are used for organic gardening involve capitalizing on landscape features and soil types and using them to your (and your vegetable's) advantage. Some vegetable plants also have an amazing capacity to tolerate cold. When you use these special varieties, you are buying yourself a ticket to delicious winter harvests.

Here are five things that you can do to extend your gardening season:

One of the simplest ways to start practicing season extension is by using your landscape to your advantage. For example, if your garden or yard has any slope, the temperatures will be the coldest at the bottom of the slope and the winds will almost always be blowing their fiercest at the very top of the slope. So, if you put your garden on the shoulder of the slope (towards the top), you will be giving your plants an advantage (it is typically at least 1-2 degrees colder at the bottom of a slope than it is at the top). If your slope faces South, so much the better. Slopes with Southern Exposure warm up more quickly than those that face North.

When considering your landscape, keep windbreaks in mind. A windbreak is anything that blocks wind: buildings, trees and other vegetation, etc. If you don't have a windbreak, you can plant one. Simply seeding a row of rye or another tall, fast growing, annual next to your vegetable garden (on the windward side) can protect your vegetable crops and your soil from the cold, damaging, winter winds.

Another way in which you can encourage Mother Nature to provide you with late fall and winter vegetables is to plant your garden in a dark-colored soil. If you naturally have a light textured (sandy or loamy), dark colored soil, you're in luck! If not, you can use compost or mulch to darken your soil which will help it retain more heat. Adding organic matter will also help your soil hold more water, which can also help it store more heat.

If you've always wanted a greenhouse, but don't have the space or budget to build one, there are a couple of options for you to create a mini-greenhouse for yourself this winter, quickly and affordably. These amazing tools of the organic gardening trade are floating row cover and cold frames.

A cold frame is what year round gardening guru Eliot Coleman refers to as "the magic box." He believes that cold frames are such an important and amazing garden structure that gardeners everywhere should chip in an erect a monument to them. A cold frame is just a box (it can be as short as 6-9 inches and up to several feet tall), that has windows for its top. The sides of your cold frame box can be made of any material: cinder blocks, wood, bales of straw or whatever else you can think of. The top can be made of plastic or glass panes (use tempered or safety glass if possible) of any size. This is a perfect opportunity to recycle windows or sliding glass doors. You can build your own cold frame or buy one from numerous sources. You can use your cold frame to keep your fall vegetables going all winter and then use it this spring to start your tomato plants. What an invention!

Floating row cover, AKA frost blanket, is a lightweight fabric that is spread over your plants in order to keep in the soil's warmth and to protect them from wind. Floating row cover is usually about 7 feet wide and comes on spools. To use it, you unroll an appropriate length of the fabric, cut it off the roll and lay it over your plants. It can be placed directly on top of your vegetable plants and secured with rocks, soil or whatever you have on hand. This fabric allows sunlight and rain to flow through it which allows you to leave it in place unless you are weeding, harvesting or doing other garden chores. Floating row cover comes in different thicknesses. The thickest is what is known as "2 oz" weight and it can keep temperatures 8 degrees higher than the surrounding air.

Using these season extension methods with cold hardy vegetables such as kale, mizuna, arugula and onions will allow you to keep your garden growing this winter

See Also:
There's a Goosefoot in my Garden
It's Easy to Grow Great Garlic
How Does Your Garden Grow Part One: Getting to Know Your Soil
Bountiful Basil

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Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at tammy@bluehorizonfarm.com.