Sometimes the vegetable gardening season can seem too short. Because Mother Nature dictates when plants will grow and thrive outside, you have to work with her schedule. However, there are ways to extend your growing season and increase your vegetable yields. Keep reading to find out how.
Planning your garden ahead of time can extend your growing season and save you time and money. Knowing what type of crops you want to plant and what will grow best in your region’s climate is probably the most important factor in extending your gardening season and increasing your harvest yield. Map out your gardens’ layouts in advance so that you have ample room for the crops you want to grow and so you can take advantage of your yard’s microclimates. If you had a garden the previous season, take note of which plants worked and which didn’t so that you can make adjustments. Rotating vegetables in and out every year or moving plants to a different part of the garden each year helps to keep the soil healthy and can benefit plants that may require more sun or more shade than others.
When to Plant
Starting plants before warm spring temperatures arrive, and planting certain types of plants in late summer for a fall harvest will make your gardening season last longer.
Start early by planting seeds and plants in indoor pots and containers about eight weeks before the last expected spring frost. Consult your local weather authority or conduct an internet search of the climate information for your area to get an estimate of the last frost. You can start tomatoes, eggplant and peppers around this time. Cole crops, such as broccoli and cabbage can be started at six weeks or a month before the last expected frost. Crops that grow on vines should be planted about a week before the last frost.
Plants started indoors must be acclimated to the outside climate before planting them in your garden. When temperatures rise to the 50ºF range, you can place seedlings outside in a shady spot for a half day. Slowly work your way up to leaving the seedlings outside for two or three full days. Gradually, move them into full sun. Don't put them out too early because you don't want surprise frosts to kill them off. Generally, seedlings are ready to be planted four to six weeks after seeding. If outdoor frosts linger or the seedlings outgrow their original containers earlier than anticipated, transplant them into a larger pot until they're ready to be planted outdoors.
Many vegetables can be planted mid-summer for a mid-autumn harvest. Spinach and other greens, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli, (cole) crops and peas can be planted in July and then picked in September or October. Plant these vegetables immediately after you’ve harvested the spring yields. This is called succession planting. Planting crops in intervals, having new plants take over for plants that have already provided a yield, can keep the crop growing way into fall. For a late harvest, plant seeds a few inches deeper than you would in spring for better insulation and water supply. Also, cover garden beds with a thick layer (3" or more) of mulch for adequate insulation.
Cold-hardy vegetables that tolerate frost easier, such as cole crops, peas, Brussels sprouts, carrots and lettuce, are great choices to plant at the beginning and end of the gardening season. Carefully read seed packets to determine if plants are suitable for these types of conditions in your area.
Use microclimates on your property. Some parts of your yard are better for gardening either early or late in the season. A spot that gets a lot of sun and warmth, either in early spring or fall, is a good spot to grow some cold-hardy plants. During the summer, parts of your yard may stay cool in the shade or may get extra warm in direct sunlight. Use these spots to your advantage by planting crops that can thrive in them.
Cover crops you plant early in the spring or late in the fall with fabric row covers. On warm days, or in the afternoon as temperatures rise, remove the covers to vent the crops. You can also use a cold frame to protect crops from frost whether it’s early or late in the season.
Use a Cold Frame
Cold frames can help protect crops in early spring and the fall. They are also ideal during the winter months of some regions of the country where the weather isn’t consistently warm enough for regular planting. A cold frame is basically a bottomless, rectangular box that can be purchased or built in any number of dimensions (commonly, at least 3' x 6'), with a hinged or detachable top cover made of plastic or glass. Think of a cold frame as a mini-greenhouse: Sunlight travels through the glass or plastic cover and is trapped inside to keep the plants warm while they grow. On a warm, sunny day, when the temperatures rise in the cold frame, you simply open it to vent the inside. However, just remember to close the top as the temperature drops again at night.
Keep Plants Healthy
Keeping your plants healthy also can extend your growing season. While their natural cycles dictate how long they will bear fruit, the healthier they are, the longer they will provide crops to harvest. Here are some tips to make sure they stay hearty for as long as possible.
It may sound obvious, but regular watering is essential for extended crop yields. Special attention should be paid to how regularly you water plants and how much you water them. If you don’t provide enough water, it will stress plants and dry them out, causing them to stop producing fruit. Too much water can cause plant disease and mold, both of which will not only cause them to stop producing, but can also kill them. When planting seeds, pay close attention to package instructions on how much water a particular plant needs and follow the directions carefully.
Take notes or keep a journal to record how much water each plant needs so you can remember amounts. It’s a good idea to keep track of when you water them each time, so you have a record of your work.
To help plants stay healthy, you must keep insects and animals from nibbling on them. Many critters concentrate on plant leaves rather than fruit, however leaves and other growth are essential for a plant to be in optimum health. Look out for aphids, Japanese beetles, slugs and snails, spider mites, leafhoppers, and certain fly and beetle larvae that attack plant leaves. Watch for damage from rabbits and squirrels, and birds, which, combined, can destroy almost an entire plant.
Often, insects can be as simple to remove as picking them off when you see them, but sometimes it’s not that easy. Consider using soapy water applied with a sponge or a spray bottle. There are also organic, non-toxic repellents available, as well as chemical insecticides that are very effective but are not as healthy an option.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using chemical insecticides. Cover exposed skin and don't apply in windy weather. When applying liquid insecticides, walk away from, and never through the treated area. Always keep insecticides out of reach of children and pets.
Deer, rabbits, squirrels and woodchucks are liable to take full advantage of your garden if your property is adjacent to a wooded or overgrown area. Spray animal repellent onto foliage for temporary relief or consider using fences, mesh or trellis netting to prevent small animals from entering your garden.
Animals dislike certain types of plant vegetation. For example, rabbits will generally avoid peppers, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and squash. Deer will avoid strongly scented herbs such as rosemary and sage and woody ornamentals such as dogwood and spruce.
Use Organic Fertilizers
Compost is probably the key factor to growing a garden organically, which can extend your gardening season. It enhances soil by aiding the growth of useful microbes, neutralizing soil pH and supplying nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Best of all, you can make it yourself. Animal manure is another great soil additive. It's a source of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. However, it must be dried out or aged before applying it to soil so that ammonia and other harmful substances in it dissipate and don't pose a threat to your crops.
Don’t overdo it with fertilizers. Apply a little when you plant and then again mid-summer for a boost that will take them deep into fall.
Watch for Weeds
If you see weeds in your garden, know that they are competing with your crops for nutrients and water and will shorten your garden’s productive period. Remove them as soon as you see them by pulling them up by hand. The only way to ensure they won't come back is to remove the entire root system. You can do this by pulling firmly by hand, or use a weeding tool.
Don’t let overripe vegetables remain on the vine. Harvest your crops regularly and often, when they are ready. Some plants will stop producing new fruit if the ripened fruit stays too long or goes to seed. It’s part of their natural process. Trick them to make more fruit by picking it when you can.
That’s it! Now you’re ready to extend your vegetable gardening season for as long as nature allows.
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