The arrival of frost doesn't have to signal the end of homegrown harvest on your dinner table. Embrace the challenge of tending a garden beyond traditional growing windows. All it takes is a little gardening sleight of hand to trick plants into thinking frost and blustery winds haven't arrived. Discover simple techniques to protect your plants against fall and winter chill.
Know your region
Frost and winter arrive at different times in different areas of the country. In the warmer Zones 6-10, prolonging harvest through winter to spring isn't as challenging as in Zones 3-5. But even in coldest regions, you can savor garden-fresh flavors into December if you use some of these easy season-extending methods.
Individual plant covers
Small plant covers, typically used to protect seedlings from late spring frost, are known as hot caps or cloches. For fall frost protection, many inventive gardeners create cloches from various containers.
Choices include inverted buckets, boxes, 5-gallon water bottles with the spouts removed and pillowcase-covered lampshades. For small plants, try gallon milk jugs or 2-liter soda bottles with the tops cut off. Or paint water-holding containers with flat black paint to absorb sunlight during the day and radiate heat to plants at night.
Floating row covers made of perforated plastic or woven or spun-bonded synthetic materials can raise daytime air temperature around plants up to 10 degrees. Some row covers allow moisture to pass through; others do not. Plastic materials typically last a few growing seasons; woven or spun-bonded fabrics last 2-3 years in the most northern regions.
Tunnels or hoop houses
These temporary, unheated greenhouse-type structures protect plants by trapping sunlight during the day to warm both air and soil inside the tunnel. Usually tunnels feature plastic sheeting fitted over flexible hoops with ends anchored in the ground.
Hoops can be made from various materials, including aluminum pipe, wire fencing, PVC, hula hoops, saplings and reinforcing rods used in concrete. With raised beds, drive pipes into soil along bed edges to hold hoop ends.
Low tunnels withstand snowfall better than tall ones. Be sure to anchor tall tunnels in windy areas. On sunny days, monitor and vent excess heat inside tunnels to avoid cooking plants. In cold regions, usually gardeners open tunnel ends to vent heat. In warmer areas, they frequently roll up tunnel sides. With all tunnels, make sure plastic edges are well anchored. Experienced gardeners suggest cutting plastic with a 2-foot excess on the long sides to allow effective anchoring.
A cold frame is a bottomless box placed over planting areas. A clear cover allows sunlight to pass through and warm crops and soil inside the frame. Most gardeners position cold frames facing south to capture the most sunlight.
Build cold frames from scrap lumber or straw bales, or create a mounded earthen frame. For the clear top, discarded windows are a favorite, but also consider old storm doors, plexiglass shower doors or a simple wood frame with plastic sheeting attached. Attach the cover to the frame so it won't shift in high winds. Create some kind of hinge to permit opening the cover on warmest days to vent excess heat.