Best Garden Structures That Help Extend the Growing Season

One of the greatest food assets a prepper can have is a year-round garden. Yet, gardens do not grow well in all locations. To help extend the growing season, this blog article looks at some of the tools that preppers can use to grow more productive gardens wherever they live.

Gardening Techniques that Shorten the Time-to-Harvest

The time-to-harvest is the amount of time it takes for a seed to grow into a plant and then grow to harvest. You can find the time-to-harvest on the back of seed packets or sometimes on the back of the plant stake that comes with a seedling.

Tools including:

  1. Sub-Planting
  2. Cold Frames
  3. Hoop Houses
  4. Greenhouses
  5. Solar Water

Maximize Your Garden Space

Regardless of where you garden, if you want an overly productive garden you have two choices.

  1. Expand your garden to squeeze in everything you want to grow
  2. Maximize the use of the space you have.

If you expand your garden, then you add more work to your plate. A larger garden takes more time to water, weed, amend the soil, plant, etc.

If you maximize the space that you have, you have a smaller garden space, but you increase the size of your annual yields. This adjusting the time-to-harvest is a tool that is useful for maximizing the garden space you already have.

How Tweaking the Time-To-Harvest Works

1. Sub-Planting

Sub-planting is simple, and many people already are on board with this trick that allows you to tweak the time-to-harvest days. Sub-planting simply means starting your seeds in containers so that you have healthy seedlings when you are ready to plant.

Tweaking the time-to-harvest is simply overlapping the use of your growing space so that as seeds spout in containers and grow into healthy seedlings while your existing crop ripens to harvest. This allows you to get a jump on your next crop without rushing your current crop.

Tweaking the time-to-harvest is especially important in places where there is a limited number of growing days. For example, many early tomatoes have ripe fruit 60-80 days after you plant the seed. However, for sweet peppers plan on 60-90 days and for those fire blazing hot ones you could wait 170 days for the fruit to ripen. It is difficult to grow both a winter garden and hot peppers when you have a limited number of growing days. To overcome that difficulty, tweak the time-to-harvest by planting your hot peppers indoors or in a greenhouse while your current crop ripens.

You can also use time-to-harvest planting to pre-start your growing season so that you have healthy plants when your local weather becomes suitable for warmer or cooler weather crops.

Tip #1: Plan your garden by season. To tweak days-to-harvest, you need to start seeds in pots and then transplant them into your garden when last season’s crop finishes growing. Keep a garden journal so that you can manage your crops. The goal is to anticipate the harvest date for crop X, and then sub-plant seeds into containers so that when crop X is harvestable, you have a second or third crop ready to plant.

Tip #2: In colder climates or when there is a late frost date, use a cold frame, greenhouse, or you can start seeds indoors on a sunny windowsill. Do not be afraid to start plants earlier than recommended. If you do, you will likely need to transplant them from small plant packs into larger planters. It is a good idea to start your seeds in3-4 inch pots and if needed transplant them to 1-gallon containers (Save your milk jugs.)

It will still take 70 days for early tomatoes, but what you gain is the 4-6 (or more) weeks that it takes to produce a healthy and transplantable seedling. While the seeds are sprouting in their pots, your garden plants are maturing. This little trick helps you to extend the growing season in your garden by maximizing planting space.

2. Cold Frames

Cold frames are containers with a lid where you can start seeds. These are very much like greenhouses but are smaller, and without all the features a greenhouse has. Cold frames are easy to build and are often inexpensive. Cold frames make great DIY projects, and they work well for garden spaces of all sizes including containers.

A well-built cold frame can extend your growing season by 2-3 months. That is 4-6 weeks in the spring and 4-6 weeks in the late fall. In some garden zones, a cold frame means that you can grow all year long. The trick to using cold frames effectively is to make sure that they are positioned to take full advantage of the winter sun. In the winter, the days are shorter, and light diminishes as you move away from the equator. So, to grow healthy plants, you must take advantage of all the light that is available.

3. Hoop Houses

Hoop houses are somewhere between a cold frame and a greenhouse. They can take on many of the benefits of a greenhouse such as heating. When covered with clear plastic, they act like a large cold frame. A hoop house is usually at least eight feet long. They can be however long you want them to be, and some of the commercial varieties are 200 feet long.

If you are going to grow long-term, then a hoop house is a great investment. These are also a simple DIY project. You can cover them with shade cloth to limit sun and heat in the summer, and then cover them in clear plastic for late fall and winter gardening. Hoop houses differ from cold frames in that they are usually much larger and taller than cold frames.

4. Greenhouses

Greenhouses are a specialty type of garden structure. They are often made of glass and designed to house specialty plants. That is not to say that you cannot use a greenhouse for gardening, just that they are often the most expensive tool available for extending your growing season.

Greenhouses are usually a permanent structure. They may have a foundation, a wooden frame, and features such as electricity, filtered water, AC, and HVAC, piped water. You can grow food in a greenhouse all year, and they are suitable for the installation of grow lights.

You don’t see true greenhouses very often, and when you do, they usually belong to specialty growers, such as those who grow orchids.

Universities often have at least one greenhouse, but for the home gardener, a greenhouse is usually not worth the cost. With that said, people do build smaller greenhouses, and they also combine all these types of garden structures to make a unit that works in their climate. Feel free to experiment as that process often offers the best result for you.

5. Solar Water

Solar water is a green heating method to keep smaller enclosed spaces warm during the cold nights. The idea is that a gallon of water left in the sun heats up and when placed into a cold frame or hoop house as the sun sets, will radiate heat within the space. As the interior space warms the water in the container loses heat more slowly. Solar water therefore, provides enough warmth to offset frosty weather.

While the idea is sound, there are many factors that play a part in the effectiveness of solar water. One factor is weatherproofing of the structure. If you have a cold frame that is not very snug, then heat will escape it quickly, and the hot water will lose its heat faster. In short, the solar water will likely not protect your plants from freezing. However, in a cold frame with a tight-fitting lid and quality insulation, the interior space will cool slowly, and your plants will likely be safe from frosts and freezes.

Solar water is a tool that works well with structures. On its own it is not going to help as its warmth will diminish quickly and your plants will be without protection. You can find products that use this idea. Wall O’ Water is one such product. That is just an example, not an endorsement. Gallon water jugs left out in the hot sun and then moved into a cold frame is another way to use solar water. This is an excellent tool for anyone who has a short growing season and who wants to start seeds early.

Compost

The last tool that I want to mention is compost. Compost generates heat. The bacterium that breaks down matter into usable soil provide a secondary benefit during the colder months of the year – They produce heat. You can use that heat to help warm your cold frame, hoop house, or even your greenhouse.

The idea is to dig the compost into trenches cover it with garden soil and then plant your seeds in the top layers of the garden soil. The decomposition of the compost will warm the upper layers of the soil and create a warm atmosphere within a closed space.

Does it work?

Yes. However, you have to figure out how much compost to dig in before you plant seeds. You also must make sure that the cold frame or hoop house is well sealed. One that bleeds heat will not be a good fit for this project. The idea is that the heat must stay trapped so that it benefits the plants, seed, and seedlings.

People have used raw manure, which is also great at producing heat during its decomposition. That is not something I recommend as raw manure can harbor unsafe bacteria such as E. coli.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Home food production is one of the most important skills any American can have. Sadly, these skills are slipping away from families. There are generations of people who have never bothered to learn to garden. The focus of this series of blogs is to help people remember how to grow their food.

How do you garden? Do you use any of these tools to extend your growing season?


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  1. All the ideas covered in the article do work! One you didn’t mention–mulching the soil in the late summer while it is still warm will help to retain the heat longer into the fall. This works even better when combined with a well insulated cold frame. It’s just one more layer of protection. But the leaves of the plant should never covered with mulch or the plant will die for lack of sunlight.

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